Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Grow Trees in the Desert With These Five Tricks From Nature

Biomimicry is the process imitating the wisdom of nature to solve human problems, and it rightfully has received a great deal of attention lately. Nature's organisms have been struggling to adapt to and live in inhospitable environments for millenia, while modern human engineering attempting the same feat is only a few hundred years old. The most famous example of biomimicry is probably Velcro, which mimics the hooks of burrs to become adhesive to fabric and hair.  However, a more complete and just as useful example of biomimicry is the Groasis Waterboxx.

The Groasis Waterboxx is a brilliant device to grow trees and other plants in the desert without any continuing irrigation.  The Waterboxx uses multiple ideas from nature to accomplish this task - in fact, the Waterboxx is so effective that it allows up 88-99% of trees planted with it to survive in the Sahara desert.

Bird Droppings
Birds are like humans in that they can see in color (some can actually see into the ultraviolet spectrum) - likely to be able to pick out brightly colored flowers and berries from surrounding green leaves.  Plants have evolved bright colors for their fruits in order to have their seeds eaten by birds, have the outer coating of the seed digested, and then having the seed deposited far from the parent plant in a bird dropping.  Bird droppings cover the seed planted on the soil, allowing the seed to be in contact with the existing capillary channels of the soil, thus allowing capillary water to reach the seed, ensuring is survives after germination.  The droppings themselves cover the seed, preventing drying out from sun and wind.  The Waterboxx copies this ability of bird droppings to plant trees and other plants - allowing capillary channels in the soil to remain intact while preventing soil moisture from evaporating into the air - similar to how a stepping stone will always have a wet underside as that soil moisture can't evaporate either.  You can see an overview of the Waterboxx mechanism, including the bird dropping inspiration, in the video below.



Skin Dew Drinking Lizards
Lizards in different parts of the world have developed an amazing ability to literally drink dew off of their skin.  The Australian Thorny Devil and the Texan Horned Lizards both collect small amounts of rain water and much more frequent dew on their skin, which is then channeled into crevices between their "horns" or skin spikes.   This water is then conveyed over to the lizards' mouth to be drank, sustaining the lizards in very harsh and dry environments.  Because there is dew most days even in the desert, the lizards are able to survive.  Similarly, the Groasis Waterboxx collects dew and rain water along its lid, and is channeled into a 4 gallon reservoir where the water is protected from evaporation.  This water is then slowly released into the soil beneath to nourish a growing plant's roots.  The lid is even corrugated, mimicking the horns of the toad, which increases surface area on which water can collect.

Australian Thorny Devil - From Wikipedia, By Bäras (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons


The Lotus Effect
Lotus leaves have an incredible ability to repel water, called superhydrophobicity by scientists and those fond of large words.  Lotus leaves have developed this ability in order to slick off dirt, bacteria and fungus which may damage the leaves of the plant.  This ability, called the Lotus Effect, is due to microscopic pyramids on the surface of the leaves which prevent small water droplets from attaching tightly to the surface with hydrogen bonds. The lid of the Groasis Waterboxx also has tiny pyramids which allows water to slide off the lid and down channels into the reservoir below for later use by the plant.
Graphic by William Thielicke showing pyramidal structure of the surface of the Lotus leaf.  This surface guarantees that water won't stick to the surface of the lotus leaf, or the Groasis Waterboxx lid that has similar microscopic pyramids on its surface.  
The Lake (Water) Effect
Water has incredible power to resist changes in temperature, referred to scientifically as high specific heat capacity.  This is very important in helping our planet (the surface of which is two thirds water) resist the massive changes in temperature of other planets like Mercury and the moon.  On a smaller scale, vessels of water can have a warm surface while still having a cool lower level of water.  This is familiar to almost anyone who has went swimming in a calm lake in the summer - the top most level of the water is warm, only to get much cooler farther down near a swimmer's feet.  This property of water can help a great deal in insulating plants against rapid changes in air temperature. Small plants still near the ground and the roots of larger plants are insulated from the heat of the sun in desert climates by the water residing in the Groasis Waterboxx.  In the photos below, you can see the how cool the Waterboxx keeps the soil below.

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Yellow is hot, blue is cooler - the Waterboxx keeps the soil and roots of the plant cool even on hot days - from Groasis.com


Tree Trunk Effect
Trees are able to get water to their upper most leaves, even if several hundred feet high.  How do they do this - the don't have an electric pump at their base and running water.  They use capillary action, or the ability of water to pull itself up the sides of narrow tubes.  The Groasis Waterboxx takes advantage of this property in two ways.  First the Waterboxx slowly releases water from the reservoir to the soil beneath via a braided wick, similar to how torches slowly move oil for burning.  This allows a consistent supply of 10 teaspoons (50 mL) of water to be distributed to the roots every day.  Secondly, the Waterboxx planted tree takes advantage of capillary action to pull capillary water up from deep in the soil, preventing the death of the plant during times of drought.  You can see capillary action below in water rising up a paper towel.

video

The Groasis Waterboxx is a wonder of biomimicry - using many insights garnered from nature to increase nature - to plant trees and other plants on dry, fallow ground.  You can buy the Groasis Waterboxx from Dew Harvest  in the United States, with discounts on large orders.

You can see all our blog posts about planting trees with the Waterboxx here. We would love to hear your comments below - to leave one, please click on "Comments".

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