Blue Horizon Sarl, a subsidiary of the space and technology group OHB SE, has received funding for the development of technologies and systems for fighting against desertification using microbiological methods in the frame of the Business Partnership Facility (BPF) of the Directorate for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs (LUXDEV). The first test area will be in Burkina Faso, one of the focus countries of Luxembourg development support. In these days, the Blue Horizons Team with Project Engineer Life Sciences, Dr. Ines Wagner and Project Engineer Life Sciences, Dr. Bo Byloos started their journey to Burkina Faso. In an interview they talk about desertification and why their method is so special.
Why is desertification a problem?
Ines Wagner: Arable land is being lost through desertification due to anthropogenic and climatic influences through soil erosion by wind and rain. As vegetation disappears on this land as a first step due to overusing the land, bad irrigation techniques and/or climatic reasons like droughts, the soil is at greater risk to further desertification. Desertified land cannot be used any more for agriculture leading to major losses in crop harvests and famines. This results in people migrating, a result which we clearly see today. With climate change and less rainfall during vegetation periods, desertification is becoming a more global issue, also reaching our latitudes. In general, the loss of vegetation also means that less CO2 is fixated during photosynthesis. This is important as CO2, amongst others, is a known greenhouse-gas.
How does the microbiological methods work?
Bo Byloos: The microbiological methods are based on the specific interactions of microorganisms and other organisms with the desertified soil. Cyanobacteria, fungi, algae, lichens and mosses will be used for the treatment. Through these interactions, so called ‘soil crusts’ will be formed that help to retain rain water to increase soil moisture content and mechanically stabilize the soil, preventing further erosion. In addition, these crusts accumulate nutrients that are important for the growth of plants, e.g. crops. These are the first steps to reverse the process of desertification, which possibly leads to soils sufficiently fertile for higher plants to grow on. The treatment process which we will realize in the target area is focused on the long-term amelioration of soil properties and is creating no harm for the environment. The outcomes will be monitored, and the treatment can be repeated at any time if necessary. Soil biodiversity and soil resilience will be positively influenced by the planned activities, and the sustainability of our technical approach will be addressed, in line with the global goals of sustainable development defined by the UN in 2016.
When will the experiment start? How long will it take?
Ines Wagner: The first experiments will start right away after our return from this first mission. The project is divided into 3 phases from lab experiments with testing different treatment procedures to the application of the soil treatment on site in Burkina Faso. The whole project is scheduled for 4 years.
Is our method different from other methods and if yes, why?
Bo Byloos: Yes, it is different. Classical methods to fight desertification are mostly based on mechanical treatments like ploughing with contour trenching, to retain rain water and prevent soil erosion.
This project tries to tackle soil desertification through the use of microbial-soil interactions, which addresses the aspects of soil biodiversity and soil resilience on a microscopic level. Soil biodiversity and soil resilience are two major factors which are lost through the process of desertification. As we try to tackle desertification on a microscopic level, this approach will contribute to a sustainable solution to fight desertification and loss of arable land.
Is this the first European project in such manner?
Ines Wagner: As far as we know yes, we are the first European project in a Sub-Saharan country working with methods based on interactions of soil with (micro)organisms.
When to expect results and what happens afterwards?
Bo Byloos: The first results from the first phase of the project are expected in 1 year from now, aiming to develop a customized treatment procedure validated in the laboratory with soil crusts, formed though our known cocktail of organisms. This treatment procedure will afterwards be validated in the field with an on-site pilot implementation with the treatment of a surface area of up to 100 m² which is a bit bigger than a badminton field. After this soil treatment has been applied, towards the end of the last phase of the project, we should see a slightly greenish biological soil crust on that surface. The effects on soil moisture content and water retention capacity will be monitored. Another follow-up project can be foreseen where a pilot-scale outdoor facility for biomass production is built if the project was successful. This will enable us to treat larger surfaces that have been desertified.
Is there a relation to space?
Ines Wagner: Yes, the microbial-soil interactions, which are applied within this project, are also relevant for Space, and can thus be related to the OHB slogan “We. Create. Space.”. They can be used for so called in-situ resource utilization whereby microorganisms interact with resources like Lunar or Martian regolith as part of a local life support strategy. Terrestrial planets and other rocky destinations in our solar system vary greatly in size and appearance however we do have many geological processes in common in our formation, producing surface materials of a similar nature. Hence, those interactions are of high importance for space exploration.