Synthesis, Characterization, and Application of Superhydrophobic Sands in Desert Agriculture

  • Joel W. Reihmer

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


A sustainable supply of fresh water for the human population is a global concern. Intriguingly, about 70% of the total fresh water consumed in the world annually is claimed by agriculture alone; this fraction is even higher in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where natural regeneration of groundwater is the slowest. Thus, there is a serious need for innovative materials and technologies to enhance the efficiency water usage in agriculture. To this end, plastic mulches have been employed across the developed world to minimize evaporative loss of water from top-soils. While plastic mulches are inexpensive, they do require specialized farm machinery for installation and long processing times. On one hand, plastic mulches have proven to increase crop yields, but on the other their non-biodegradability poses serious environmental concerns. In response, development of low-cost bio-/photo-degradable artificial mulches remains an area of intense research. In this thesis, we report on a novel superhydrophobic material exploiting inexpensive simple components to reduce the amount of water required for irrigation in agriculture by suppressing evaporative losses from the top-soil. Our material consists of ordinary beach sand coated with < 20 nm thick layer of paraffin wax. We synthesized and extensively characterized our material and applied them as mulches for tomato and barley plants at the KAUST greenhouse. We found that when a ~5 mm thick layer of superhydrophobic sand was placed onto the top-soil in pots, it dramatically suppressed evaporative losses and significantly enhanced the yields. Our preliminary field-scale experiments with tomatoes and barley crops at the Hada Al Sham site corroborate these results. Our approach might find applications in desert agriculture and other fields and alleviate water stress in the MENA region.
Date of AwardApr 2017
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorHimanshu Mishra (Supervisor)


  • Superhydrophobicity
  • Desert Agriculture
  • Food-water-energy nexus
  • Sand
  • evaporative loss
  • artificial mulch

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