Clean technology firm taps 3D printing for irrigation

By Ruth Doris

An Irish clean technology company is developing a product related to the overconsumption of water and chemicals in crop production.

AquaRoot Technologies’ innovation system uses biodegradable polymers to enable farmers to make customised irrigation pipes on site.

Founder Vincent Farrelly has a technology background, having worked for over 20 years in life sciences and biotechnology in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

His idea recently won the Irish heat of 2017 Climate LaunchPad, after AquaRoot travelled to Cyprus to compete in the finals of the competition which looks for the world’s best green business ideas. Mr Farrelly’s idea stemmed from his interest in polymers and plant biotechnology. He began to look at the use of polymers in irrigation systems to find out if expandable foam could be used to make pipes on site using “very basic 3D printing”.

The AquaRoot platform will allow pipes for irrigation and drainage to be produced rapidly and more economically than current systems.

“We’re looking at the typical farmer who wants to create customised tubing or pipes whenever they want to,” he said. Having received some funding, the company has worked with Athlone Institute of Technology to develop different types of polymers with different functions.

“Like a tree root, it delivers water to and from, and takes water out of the soil. You can print on the surface of the ground, on concrete, asphalt or inject it into the soil, where it expands and behaves like a sponge. You can pull water out and pull water using capillary pressure or a suction pump. It’s just a new way of bringing liquids in and out from one place to another,” he said.

The system uses a “very basic” form of 3D printing — extruding out the polymer compound to form a shape.

Once the substance is exposed to air, it expands to about 50 times its size and forms a honeycomb-like structure which the water can flow through like a sponge. “You can also create a bore in the pipe into which you can flow fluid or water through. This forms near instantaneously, and within seconds you’ve got a structure,” he said.

AquaRoot’s first structure is a very simple tube through which water can be drawn.

“We provide the equipment for the farmer or irrigation specialist and they actually make the pipes on site. These things form very quickly and the idea is that you can actually plant seeds into them and you can grow plants in them,” he said.

As far as Mr Farrelly is aware there is no system like AquaRoot on the market.

The potential environmental benefits are promising, especially in areas prone to drought or water restrictions. As the system allows for targeted watering and fertilisation of plants, it can provide big reductions in the use of water, fertilisers and pesticides.

“Let’s say a situation where you’ve got overhead irrigation on a field, you’re actually watering the weeds, but with this, the water is going directly into the plants, feeding the roots. You’ll be targeting the fertiliser and the pesticide and herbicide spray,” he said. The biodegradable polymer can then be ploughed into the land or disposed of.

The potential savings in effort and labour are considerable. The “big vision is to be able to modify a crop sprayer and to print, or extrude, the substance into pipe forms and lay an irrigation or drainage system on a large amount of land very quickly,” Mr Farrelly said. While AquaRoot’s ultimate target is the international export market, it will initially focus on glasshouse horticulture.

Trials printing pipes in glasshouses to transport water and grow plants begin in early 2018. Another area he’s looking at is hydroponics. One of the biggest problems of that system is the amount of infrastructure needed. What AquaRoot is offering is like an alternative to hydroponics, he said.

“You can make structures like pipes, growing pots and chambers for plants. You put the plantlet in or the seedling in and flow through the water with nutrients in it and the plant grows in that,” he said.

Getting to the finals of Climate LaunchPad has helped to open a few doors for AquaRoot in terms of making contacts and fine-tuning its pitch. The next step is to find partners and to get an angel investor on board, said Mr Farrelly.


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