hydrogels, powerfully absorbent polymers that can suck up hundreds of times their weight in water

super-soil harnesses the power of Pampers

Hydrogels have many applications today, from food processing to mopping up oil spills, but they are most familiar as the magic ingredient in disposable diapers. The difference with agricultural hydrogels is that they don't just trap moisture; they let it go again, very slowly, almost like time-release medication, into the root system of plants. That continuity of moisture is what brittle landscapes like deserts need to become fertile again. Water activates a mineralization process, setting free nutrients in the soil so that life can grow.

But water alone won't make gardens flourish in sand. So van Cotthem, an honorary professor of botany at Ghent University in Belgium who has helmed several international scientific panels studying desertification, invented a "soil conditioner" called Terracottem. It's an 8- to 12-inch layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, along with organic agents that nourish the natural bacteria in the soil.

Scientists are exploring different uses for hydrogels. Enhanced soils, they believe, could be the key to farms in space. The recipe is simple: a few drops of water and glass-like marbles to provide a kind of scaffolding for roots in the soil.

Source: popsci.comAdded: 10 September 2010