Nature-Inspired Superhydrophobic Sand Mulches Increase Agricultural Productivity and Water-Use Efficiency in Arid Regions

Adair Gallo, Kennedy Odokonyero, Magdi A.A. Mousa, Joel Reihmer, Samir Al-Mashharawi, Ramona Marasco, Edelberto Manalastas, Mitchell J.L. Morton, Daniele Daffonchio, Matthew F. McCabe, Mark Tester, Himanshu Mishra*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Excessive evaporative loss of water from the topsoil in arid-land agriculture is compensated via irrigation that exploits massive freshwater resources. The cumulative effects of decades of unsustainable freshwater withdrawals in many arid regions are now threatening food-water security. While plastic mulches can reduce evaporation from the topsoil, their cost and nonbiodegradability limit their utility. In response, we report on biodegradable superhydrophobic sand (SHS), a bioinspired enhancement of common sand with a nanoscale wax coating. When SHS was applied as a 5-10 mm-thick mulch over the soil, evaporation was reduced by 56-78% and soil moisture increased by 25-45%, which benefited the development of crops. Multiyear field trials with tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), and wheat (Triticum aestivum) under normal irrigation demonstrated that SHS mulch application enhanced yields by 17-73%. Under brackish water irrigation (5500 ppm NaCl), SHS mulching produced 53-208% higher fruit and grain yields for tomato and barley crops, respectively. SHS application did not affect the soil-root-rhizosphere microbial communities as evidenced by 16S rRNA gene analysis. The rhizospheric environments were dominated by an assemblage of diverse bacterial communities, such as Gammaproteobacteria, Alphaproteobacteria, and Bacteroidetes, followed by Firmicutes, Gemmatimonadetes, and Actinobacteria, which could be responsible for the degradation of paraffin wax on the SHS. Thus, SHS technology should benefit irrigated agriculture and city-greening efforts in arid regions under the constraint of high water-use efficiency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)276-288
Number of pages13
JournalACS Agricultural Science and Technology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 18 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors acknowledge the research support from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) through award #BAS/1/1070-0101 to H.M.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The authors.


  • bioinspiration
  • food-water security
  • mulching
  • superhydrophobic sand
  • sustainability
  • water-use efficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Science
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Plant Science


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