Solar farms can regenerate soil biocrusts

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ASU researchers led by Dr. Ferran Garcia-Pichel have figured out a way to use solar farms to regenerate the biocrust of the desert landscape.

Biocrusts play a critical role in maintaining soil health and ecosystem sustainability. Nevertheless, right now, they are at risk. Things like agriculture, urbanization and off-road vehicle use can lead to the degradation of these fragile environments. Additionally, climate change and extreme heat are placing stress on biocrusts.

To help with this issue, Dr. Garcia-Pichel and his team have come up with an innovative approach to restoring healthy biocrusts. The idea is to use new and existing solar energy farms as nurseries for generating fresh biocrust. Using this approach, the biocrusts are sheltered from excessive heat and can flourish and develop. Then, ultimately, the newly generated biocrusts can be used to replenish arid lands.

The research used a suburban solar farm for their proof of concept. However, scientists believe the use of larger solar farms could provide a low-cost method to regenerate biocrusts and expand soil restoration.

The study estimates that use of the three largest solar farms in Maricopa County as biocrust nurseries could empower a small-scale enterprise to rejuvenate all idle agricultural lands within the county in under five years.

The team dubbed the pioneering approach “crustivoltaics.”

“This technology can be a game changer for arid soil restoration,” Dr. Garcia-Pichel said. “For the first time, we are reaching regional scales at our fingertips, and we could not be more excited. To boot, crustivoltaics represents a win-win approach for conservation of arid lands and for the energy industry alike.”

Dr. Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Director of ASU’s Biodesign Center for Fundamental & Applied Microbiomics

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