In Iran, sand and dust storms are a persistent, worsening problem. Climate change and water mismanagement have transfigured whole regions of the country in the last half-century, notably in the southeast and the southwest, where these storms swallow up entire villages and make the air very difficult to breathe. Since the 1960s, the authorities have used petrol-based mulch to try to stabilise the ground in dry areas. But now, inventors are testing out less harmful organic mulches – including one created using nanotechnology.
Roll your cursor over the map to see other articles we've written about Iran. Climate change and water mismanagement have transfigured whole regions of the country in the last half-century, notably in the southeast and the southwest.
In recent years, several startups have come up with new mixtures using clay, vegetable fibers and gelatin to create a sticky mulch that is poured over dirt to keep it from being moved by winds. These are all organic, but they are generally only effective for two to three years, compared with four to five years for petrol-based mulch.
Dr. Taimour Aminrad, a professor of marine biology at Chabahar university, has used nanotechnology to create a new organic mulch that he says will last about 10 years. He has patented it and had it approved by Iran’s standards organisation under the name “Nanorad851”. He is currently testing it in Chabahar, in Iran’s southeastern province.
This mulch could be easily sprayed onto large areas of land.
“The mulch does not change the PH of the soil, and it has no effects on plants or animals, even insects”
For decades, we’ve been using petrol-based mulch, which is very harmful for the environment. It poisons the earth, killing insects and plants, and stops water from infiltrating into the soil. Because of its black colour, it increases the air temperature. And because it’s weak and cracks easily, people cannot walk over it.
Organic mulches are far better for the environment. But most of them have a short life span: only two to three years.
The story of my mulch begins with the COP21 climate change conference in Paris in 2015. I followed this conference from Iran, and saw that biofuels were promoted as a promising replacement for fossil fuels. So I and several friends began to work on producing energy with algae. Using our own money, we were able to produce five tons of algae in two months. We were overjoyed. Our project caught the attention of the local authorities, who gave us 10 hectares of land on which to cultivate more algae. However, we had a problem: we didn’t have the funds to buy more pools for the algae. So I went to work on creating a formula to stabilise the soil so that it could contain the water in natural pools.
In two months, using nanotechnology, I’d created an inexpensive and organic mortar that I used to build the pools. It worked great, so the idea popped into my head: maybe we can use this formula to stabilise the soil in our region. So over the next few months, I worked to turn this mortar into a liquid that could be easily sprayed onto large areas of land.
“Like pearls on a necklace”
To protect my invention, I cannot share the exact details of the formula, but in general terms, this is how it works: At a microscopic level, any grain of sand or dirt has holes through it, of varying diameters. The nanomaterial is able to pass through these cavities. Now add a glue to the mix, and when it dries, it becomes like a chain that holds pearls on a necklace.
The mulch does not change the PH of the soil, and it has no effects on plants or animals, even insects. Even if animals eat it, it will not harm them. It has zero chemical reactivity. [Editor’s Note: Iran’s standards organisation has tested the mulch and confirmed that it is not toxic]. If humans walk on it, it will not turn into powder, but rather break into the size of rocks so that it keeps working to contain soil. My tests suggest that it should work for about a decade.
As far as I know, this is the only organic mulch in the world created using nanotechnology. As of now, it costs 2,000 Tomans per litre (about €0.45) and every litre can cover 10 square metres. It’s much cheaper than petrol-based mulch. [Editor’s Note: For an hectare, petrol-based mulch costs about 10 million Tomans (more than €21,000)] my mulch would cost about two million Tomans (€425).
Iran’s top environmental official, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had my mulch tested and verified the results many times to see that it really worked. However, the government hasn’t deployed it; I hope it will do so in the future. The petrol-based mulch industry is a multimillion dollar industry, so this situation is not going to change overnight.
The government has let five startups test their organic mulch on 45 hectares of land near Uremia lake, which they are trying to save from drying up. In three years, they will determine which one worked the best and use it all over that region. Dr. Aminrad’s mulch, which was developed more recently, is not part of this project.
In next years’ budget, the country has allotted 200 billion Tomans (more than €245 million) towards mulch, without specifying how much of it will be organic or petrol-based. According to Iranian officials, Iran needs to stabilise seven million hectares of dry soil labelled “level one crisis zones”.