Self-Watering Plants

Research into creating materials to allow plants to release and absorb water from stores only when needed is continuing. This research could be valuable to not only reducing water shortages, but also increasing productivity, making space exploration easier, increasing plant health (including potential yields) and helping out with long haul cargo trips. The addition of nutrients using the same method makes this even more useful.

According to a letter by Hymie Gesser of Winnipeg in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press on August 11th, 2011 work is continuing on a self-watering process for plants that uses a “special micro-porous plastic material that separated the plant’s roots from the supply of water and nutrients.”. The original process was for potted plants written about by Louis Errede, of 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Gesser has extended the process to row plants and just patented it. Apparently there’s a more detailed article about Gesser’s work in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 17th, 2002. I found another article that seems to be written by the same researcher with the name variant Dr. Hyman D. Gesser. The detailed article by Gesser is available from Winnipeg Jewish Review at: http://www.winnipegjewishreview.com/article_detail.cfm?id=145&sec=2 and seems to have been written in or around 2009 as it refers to an article published in the Journal of Applied Irrigation Science, Volume 44, (2009) pp 31 -37.

Self-watering plants seems like a useful concept to reduce water usage, but it is worrying that the work was verified in Florida which I generally associate with being wet from rain and swamps. It’s also quite a hot climate. I’m also discouraged that drip irrigation seems to be preferred by several desert institutions.

Reduce water usage could be very useful to grow food and raw materials in deserts, other dry lands, or even on space expeditions. Long haul trips like cargo ships and distant space travel could benefit not only in reduce water consumption, but also potential longer life for some perishables, and less human intervention being required. One practical application for me might be for some office plants that I’m considering buying, but will not be able to water on long weekends, or some vacations. I can imagine some offices that have shutdowns for weeks, and some that have very few workers that could benefit. Also, reduce time spent watering plants means more time available for other tasks. People likely won’t deliver water as efficiently as the plants want, but hopefully a technology like this will which may mean better yields and healthier plants.

I haven’t found out what the source of the water is, but for potted plants it seems like manual refills will be required. For row plants hopefully there’s tubing that allows water to flow, though distances and rates of flow may mean that there are more opportunities for research. Fortunately Gesser lives in the same city as me so perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to find out more.

Further Research

Some topics that could be further researched include:

  • What are the substances released by plant roots when water and nutrients are needed, or not needed?
  • How can the costs of materials and production be reduced?
  • What plants are best suited to these watering techniques? Guesser found it to be effective for many different fruit and vegetable plants.
  • Do these techniques not work with certain plants?
  • How does this technique effect yield? It may reduce yield in certain cases.
  • Should nutrient or water be decreased during certain events such as certain growing phases, different weather, different ground conditions, and pesticide application?
  • How can materials be protected during tilling?
  • How do pesticides effect the materials?
  • How do “weeds” behave in the presence of the materials? Last year’s crop can be considered a weed.
  • How do insects and animals interact with the materials? This may make a good home for certain species, some may puncture materials making them less effective, and some might find the materials toxic (though this seems less likely).
  • How do various harvesting techniques effect the materials? Using a mower cuts lower than a swather. Flooding fields to harvest cranberries could be significant to the materials…
  • How can materials be repaired? Delivery of “healing” material may be possible via the same tubes.
  • How do different shapes and orientations make a differences? Tubes with branches, capsules, spikes…
  • Can roots be attached to more directly?

Further reading

Louis A. Errede and Patricia D. Martinuccl, Flow Rate of Water through Porous Membranes as Affected by Surface Modification on the Low-Pressure Side of the Membrane, 1980, 19 (4), pp 573–580 found at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/i360076a018

João G. Crespo, Karl W. Böddeker, North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Scientific Affairs Division, Membrane processes in separation and purification, Springer, 1994, ISBN 0792329295, 9780792329299

C. A. Heath and G. Belfort, Synthetic membranes in biotechnology: Realities and possibilities, Springer Berlin / Heidelberg, 1992, ISBN 978-3-540-55551-3. Abstract found at: http://www.springerlink.com/content/245u31675230m064/

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