New crop irrigation design cuts energy needs

A new drip irrigation design for watering crops could halve the amount of energy required by solar-powered systems. It brings cost-effectiveness, too, putting the system in reach of more farmers.

Many farms in drought-prone regions of America rely on drip irrigation as a water-saving method to grow crops. These systems pump water through long thin tubes that stretch across farm fields.

Drip irrigation can reduce a farm’s water consumption by as much as 60 per cent and increase crop yield by 90 per cent, compared with conventional irrigation methods. However, these systems are expensive.

Now, engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA have found a way to halve the cost of solar-powered drip systems, by optimising the drippers. These new drippers can also halve the pumping power required to irrigate, lowering energy bills for farmers.

The team, led by Amos Winter, modified the drippers’ dimensions in a way that significantly reduces the pressure required to pump water through the entire system, while still delivering the same amount of water.

“Many small farmers in India make only a few hundred dollars a year, so a drip irrigation system is way outside their price point,” Amos explained in a statement. “Low-cost drip systems could help them increase their yield and income, so they can get out of the cycle of poverty.”

Farmers in the developing world currently primarily grow crops using flood irrigation – a method that is inexpensive, but gives little control over when and how much to water crops.

The new dripper design, which has an optimal flow rate, could allow poor farmers to grow higher value crops and make more money.

“It turns out there is a massive untapped market in off-grid situations,” Winter added. “If you look at the developing world, there are about half a billion small farms with 2.5 billion people. For them, this technology could be a game-changer.”

Winter is now working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Jain Irrigation to test the drippers in Morocco and Jordan.

Photo credit: ICRISAT/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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