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Study reveals that deserts breathe

A new study shows that the desert breathes, at least figuratively. The research explains how water vapor penetrates sand, and is essential for the fungi and bacteria living in the sand.

For a long time, scientists didn’t know how moisture reached these tiny life forms. But Michel Louge, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, developed a tool to understand this ecosystem better. The device is called a capacitance probe. The probes use multiple sensors to record various characteristics of sand, including water content, velocity, and solid concentration.

Although scientists have suspected that air passes through sand, the probe allows them to accurately detect how porous the substrate is.

“The wind flows over the dune and as a result creates imbalances in the local pressure, which literally forces air to go into the sand and out of the sand. So, the sand is breathing, like an organism breathes,” said Professor Louge.

The researchers believe there are several applications for this discovery. Perhaps we could better understand how soil absorbs and drains water, which could lead to agricultural developments. Moreover, satellite engineers could use the technology to create more accurate images. The probes could even help us explore worlds beyond earth.

The probe could also help pharmaceutical companies make our medicines safer. Louge has been working with Merck since 2018. They wish to apply this science to continuous manufacturing, a more efficient, more cost-effective way to produce pharmaceuticals. 

“If you want to do continuous manufacturing, you have to have probes that will allow you, as a function of time, and everywhere that’s important, to check that you have the right behavior of your process,” explained Professor Louge.

Considering current affairs, perhaps the most valuable use of this technology is its ability to help us better understand how agricultural lands turn into deserts.

The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Earth Surface

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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