In a move that they hope will help fight desertification, Chinese scientists have claimed to have developed a new technique that has enabled them to convert sand into fertile soil.
Researchers at Chongqing Jiaotong University have developed a paste made of plant cellulose that, when added to sand, helps it retain water, nutrients and air.
A 1.6-hectare sandy plot in Ulan Buh Desert in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, north China, has been transformed into fertile land, yielding rice, corn, tomatoes, watermelon and sunflowers, after being treated with the new method.
An issue of the English-language journal "Engineering," published by the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), will publish the research by the Chongqing scientists Yi Zhijian and co-author Zhao Chaohua.
"The new method will hopefully help turn desert areas into an ideal habitat for plants," state run Xinhua quoted Yi as saying.
The plants in the sandy test plot needed about the same amount of water as those grown in regular soil, but required less fertilizer and bore higher yields, according to estimates by experts.
Since 2013, scientists have been experimenting with outdoor cultivation at two sites with areas of approximately 550 and 420 square metres in Chongqing, where scientists simulated desert landform conditions.
According to the scientists, the plants have survived the heavy rain and high temperatures, the typical climate conditions in Chongqing. The crops, including rice, corn and potatoes, flourished in the newly converted soil.
To verify the method, a large-scale planting experiment in Ulan Buh Desert began in April this year. There is very little rainfall in the area.
The converted sand has proved to be an ideal habitat for plant species with a strong resistance to wind erosion, according to the research findings.
The cost of sand conversion is between 22,500 yuan and 40,500 yuan (USD 3,373 to 6,071) per hectare, Yi said.
The new method is an important breakthrough in combating desertification and may prove fundamental in transforming deserts into fertile, arable land, said Zhong Zhihua, an academic with the CAE.
(With agency inputs)