3D Printed Pipes Mimic Tree Roots to Irrigate Plants

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Water is something that every living thing needs, but it can be problematic making sure that water gets to every living thing – not just people and animals, but plants as well. Irrigation is important for farming, but it’s often ineffective and wasteful. Irrigation systems are expensive to install and to run, and they can result in 60% or more water waste through leakage and evaporation. They’re difficult to install, too, involving large pipes that must be transported to a site and installed by experts where, once they’re in place, they’re in place, leaving no room for changing landscapes or irrigation patterns.

As is so often the case, nature does things better than humans, so startup AquaRoot Technologies took a look at the natural networks of tree roots in order to come up with a new way of laying pipes. The Irish company was founded by Vincent Farrelly, who has worked in life sciences and biotechnology for two decades. The idea is that by using a form of 3D printing, pipes can be produced directly on site and customized in any way the farmer chooses.

The pipes are 3D printed from a polymer foam that expands to 50 times its size when exposed to air and forms a honeycomb structure through which water flows like a sponge.

“You can also create a bore in the pipe into which you can flow fluid or water through,” Farrelly said. “This forms near instantaneously, and within seconds you’ve got a structure.”

Vincent Farrelly

The spongelike structure of the pipes pulls water out of the soil and transports it to plants. According to Farrelly, the pipes can be 3D printed on concrete, asphalt or soil, or injected directly into the soil to form an underground network. Water can be transported using capillary pressure or a suction pump. Farmers can even plant seeds directly in the pipes.

Farrelly worked with Athlone Institute of Technology to develop the polymer material, and there are now two different formulations – biodegradable, which can be absorbed into the soil, and non-biodegradable, for more permanent structures. Not only are the pipes easier to install, they’re more eco-friendly and efficient, a benefit especially for drought-prone areas.

“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,” said  Farrelly. “You’ll be targeting the fertiliser and the pesticide and herbicide spray.”

Close-up of the polymer foam

AquaRoot came in first place in the Irish heat of the 2017 International Climate Launchpad competition, and went on to compete in the International Finals in Cyprus in October. The company is planning to have its first 3D printed pipes out in beta trials by the middle of 2018, and to work with commercial and development partners to find and develop applications in agriculture and construction both in Ireland and abroad.

“Our aim is that our AquaRoot system will be the de facto choice for users to create their own permanent or temporary waterpipe systems,” Farrelly said. “Be that a horticulturist growing strawberries in a glasshouse, a construction worker draining a sump, or a farmer irrigating plants or providing water to animals.”

AquaRoot Technologies is looking for investors and partners that will work with it towards its goals. If you’re interested in investing or working wiith AquaRoot, you can contact Farrelly at farrellyv@gmail.com.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Sources: Irish Examiner / Engineers Journal]

 

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