To conserve fresh water, the researchers used water considered of low quality, such as recycled sewage water and salt water that was the by-product of inland desalination plants. The final piece of the puzzle was to find a plant hearty enough to successfully grow in the desert. The researchers turned to Tamarix, a botanical genus that includes salt cedar trees and is indigenous to the old-world deserts. Some 150 different varieties of the botanical genus were used, grown in both a common garden setting and in densities that mimicked commercial crops.
With the first harvest of trees just last summer, researchers have much to process, including analyzing the amount of carbon dioxide the crops have successfully captured from the atmosphere. The answers will determine how much carbon such a crop can offset.
A source for biofuel?
The cut trees themselves might also be used as a source of renewable energy. These "biomass" or "biofuel" crops, derived from natural crops, could help to reduce dependence on traditional fossil fuels such as coal. But the question of where to grow crops dedicated to fuel production had to be addressed, since converting agricultural land could have the side effect of creating food shortages.
Arid and previously unused desert lands provide an ideal solution, Prof. Eshel says. To make his approach economically feasible, much more land would be needed than Israel can provide. But similar tracts of land, such as the Sahara Desert, are big enough to grow these types of crops on a larger scale. He adds that what has been done in the Israeli desert can be replicated elsewhere to great effect.
This research is a collaboration between TAU's Porter School of Environmental Science, the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Funds for the study were provided by the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea.
|Contact: George Hunka|
American Friends of Tel Aviv University