THIS IS BIG: Hydrophobic Sand

Next Big Future carries a good writeup:  Sand that blocks water access, providing a stable water table which also seals away salt carried further down into the sand.

The ramifications for this are simply stunning.  This won’t do you any good in an area like much of the US southwest, where the sand is merely blown rock.  But for significant chunks, and for putting around areas which already tend to be ponds and lakes when there’s not a drought, this would be amazingly helpful.  The capacity to reclaim the Sahara also comes to mind….which would be a blow for world peace, as thousands of muslim goatherds currently are constantly pushing south on the fringes of an ever-expanding desert, into animist zones, helping to create cultural conflict.  Hydrophobic sand would go a long way towards helping to relieve that ongoing catastrophe.

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  1. Mike

     /  February 6, 2009

    That IS something. From an ecological standpoint, you could freeze certain ecosystems and stop some of the cyclic water issues (reservors versus aquafers for instance). But I wonder how the environmental nut jobs will take this. Anything that interrupts the “natural flow of life” they always grip about.

  2. happycrow

     /  February 6, 2009

    That’s why NBF’s writeup is such a big thing. The **Germans** said it was safe. They’re like, ELF and ALF rolled up into one big fuzzy ball, only without the terrorism.

  3. drteine

     /  February 6, 2009

    Actually, you’re thinking the Swedes – they’re the ones that created the precautionary principle that all chemicals must be treated with the idea that they are hazardous until proven safe. The Germans are funny on environmental law – it’s bad if it was invented outside Germany, but if it was invented in Germany, NO MATTER IF IT ACTUALLY IS HAZARDOUS, then its okay. German fire codes are a perfect example of this. They’ll rail against products made outside the country having to meet strict standards of fire safety AND environmental benefit, but not check things made from internal standards to the point that housing fires are actually up in Germany, substantially, over the past 10 years.
    Now for this technology, well its certainly very interesting but there are two problems with it. The first is semantics and second relates to biocompatibility. For the first issue, this ain’t nanotechnology. I put hydrophobic coatings onto things all the time at work – its basically a reaction between a thin reactive molecule with a hydrophobic end and a hydrophillic end. Mix the two up and if you got the reaction right, you’ve got your hydrophobic coating. This is done with fiberglass, carbon fiber, carpets, fabrics, etc. – all the time. So the application is just applying existing chemistry in new ways. Innovative, but not nanotechnology. I swear I think the additive in question is a trade name for a Dow-Corning silicone additive.
    The 2nd issue is the real issue. If you make a sand bed that repels water what hold it together? If it just blows away since there isn’t any sand to hold in place, don’t you just enable fine particle dust storms? More importantly – nothing can grow in it. You’ve made things more barren, not less since most plants need a hydrophilic surface to wick water along with, or, extract trace minerals out of the sand. A surprising number of plants actually pull silicon out of the soil into their structure – they’d die quickly in this stuff. If that sand does all blow away and get inhaled with a coating the body doesn’t know what do to with….what then?
    Don’t get me wrong – I think its very smart to treat the sand to prevent leaks at chemical plants or to stabilize things to prevent water tables from destabilizing structures, and maybe, just maybe, use this stuff to enable water reclamation, but this technology isn’t fully tested yet. It still has quite a ways to go.

  4. happycrow

     /  February 6, 2009

    That’s a good point. Simply because it’s *presumably* going to be put in under an existing sand bed, doesn’t mean that it will be well-implemented.

  5. convivialdingo

     /  February 6, 2009

    Why not just ship barges of manure into the desert? We’ve got plenty of that, LOL.

    Seriously – it’s a desert because nothing/not enough lives there to complete the nitrogen soil cycle. Hunting and farming on the edges of the desert only expands the problem.

    You could certainly use this sand to hold water. But nothing will grow until there’s enough nitrogen & organic matter.

  6. happycrow

     /  February 6, 2009

    Actually, I could terra-preta out the rest with mixed composted manure and ground char. But have no facilities for making same, so….there are times when being a nomad and lacking connections sucks. The machinery for turning out a “black soil factory” is WAYYYY beyond what I can afford to do with a kid coming. This does solve the salt-poisoning problem, though, and that’s spiff.

  7. happycrow

     /  February 7, 2009

    Oh, Drteine, I figured out a basic answer to your question: sandbags. Stack them at right angles, and cut the center of each bag as the others go onto it. As additional soil accumulates and shifts the bags, enough sand will shift in order to cover any of the gaps, while still keeping the vast majority of the water up above.

  8. drteine

     /  February 8, 2009

    I reckon sandbags ought to do the trick, but I now wonder about if the hydrophobicity means that the sand is too organophilic. This means that it might draw up chemical and oil spills too well – and wick it right through the sand to the point that it goes faster through the sand bed rather than slow it down. Don’t know really – but I think more research is needed before this stuff is really ready for use.

  9. I am interested in the hydrophobic coating process. Is it relatively simply to carry out in the laboratory?

  10. drteine

     /  February 24, 2009

    Sorry for not responding sooner, I just now saw this.
    The coating process isn’t too hard to carry in a lab but it depends ultimately on the substrate you’re coating. If it was sand like in this article, you would just make a sand + solvent slurry and add in the reactive coating under high shear mixing. If it was fiberglass, you’d run the fiber through a bath of the material. Of course, you’ll need to make sure that the coating chemicals are compatible with the solvent and the process.
    Sorry for the vague answer, but really I would have to know more before I can give a detailed answer.

  11. Peter Liu

     /  March 14, 2009

    It is sand like materials I am intersting in treating with hydrophobic coating. I am looking for a low-cost process that would eventually use to make a large quantity of. There are recipes offered at youtube for making magic sand and I was able to make some successfully. Besices, the coating must be environmentally friendly. I contacted DIME, they keep very tight lips on their process.


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