Guest Column | February 3, 2017

The New Silicon Valley: How A Forgotten Mineral Solves Our Water Problems

Agriculture

By Bart A.J. de Jonge

For centuries, scientists believed that silicon — an element that accounts for nearly 28 percent of the earth’s crust — had little to do with life-sustaining processes in animal and plants. But in the last couple of decades, science has begun to recognize something new: Silicon can reduce the effects of various stressors on plants, including water stress. This ubiquitous, but overlooked, mineral could be the key to more resilient crops worldwide.

That’s where Si Technologies comes in. The company launched in 2013 with a mission to develop a tool that uses silicon to make crops less dependent on water, allowing farmers in drought-prone regions — especially developing countries — to maintain their harvests during water shortages. The resulting product, NewSil, is made of stabilized silicic acid and boron. When sprayed on plants, they rapidly begin to increase their silicon intake, protecting the plant.

Though the silicic spray is not a pesticide, it also prevents damage from pests because the silicon intake creates an opal layer just below the skin, making it that much harder for fungi, bacteria, and animals to penetrate the outer layers. Scientific trials suggest the spray can reduce water demand by up to 50 percent, and field experience has shown that it improves yields between 5 and 35 percent and improves the overall quality of the crop.

If we can get such a spray to farmers that need it on a large scale, it could potentially have a major impact as one billion people today don’t have enough food to eat. By 2050, that number will only get worse as the population grows — experts say the world will need to produce at least 50 percent more food to feed everyone.

With the help of funders and technical advisors like Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development (SWFF) to establish credibility and market readiness in this space, Si Technologies has already had orders in India and is now registered in Indonesia and South Africa with plans to move into Mozambique, China, and Kenya. The company is also currently developing a powder that is easier to ship and will help it scale even further.

With any luck, silicon will be an important part to improving the world’s food security. Si Technologies is continuing to work to find ways to save water, our planet’s most precious resource, while bettering the environment we all live in. Though the company has focused its efforts on the developing world, the hope is that NewSil and silicon will be the keys in making agriculture an efficient, sustainable, and profitable sector for the entire planet.

Bart A.J. de Jonge is the CEO of Si Technologies, a Dutch company focused on developing and producing high-quality products for the agricultural sector in Asia and Africa, such as NewSil. Si Technologies is a grantee of Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development. SWFF aims to increase access to innovations that help farmers produce more food with less water, enhance water storage, and improve the use of saline water and soils to produce food. Over the previous two rounds of Securing Water for Food, the program has saved over 500 million liters of water, produced nearly 2,000 tons of food, and served more than 300,000 farmers and other customers in more than 20 low-resource countries.

Image credit: "Agriculture" StateofIsrael © 2011 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/