Do you remember the Stephen Wright joke about powdered water? The one that goes:
I bought some powdered water, but I don't know what to add to it.
Thanks to the efforts of chemical engineer Sergio Jésus Rico Velasco, who has spent years working to find a solution to the drought conditions faced by farmers in Mexico, we now know the answer to Stephen Wright's quandary. You need to add water!
Modern Farmer's Jesse Hirsch describes the innovation and the potential impact for agriculture in arid regions:
Solid Rain looks like sugar, and it sells for $25 a pound. And if you're a bit skeptical of its maker's claims, we understand. This Mexican product, which bills itself as a miracle powder that could solve the world's drought problems, seems like it belongs right alongside magic beans and Herbalife on the "I wasn't born yesterday" spectrum.
But rest assured: Solid Rain is very real, and very effective.
Solid Rain's creator, Sergio Jésus Rico Velasco, is a Mexican chemical engineer who spent decades trying to mitigate his country’s drought issues. His initial inspiration for Solid Rain was baby diapers, an item that absorbs lots of liquid in a minimal space.
That's the basic process used by Solid Rain — it's a highly absorbent polymer called potassium polyacrylate, which soaks in water up to 500 times its original size. A whole liter of water can be absorbed in just 10 grams of Solid Rain, which converts into a thick, translucent gel. The water is then retained for up to a year, and it will not evaporate, run off into the soil or go anywhere until it's consumed by a plant's roots. Think of it like a little powdered reservoir.
The innovation has demonstrated its ability to improve the yields of crops in dry regions over the past decade by keeping them much better hydrated throughout the year, and especially during the dry seasons. Interestingly, the material itself is safe for the environment because it's not itself soluble in water, so it stays in the soil and isn't absorbed into the roots of plants. Better still, it also appears to have the potential to improve crop yields by keeping soil nutrients from washing away when fields are irrigated, since it reduces the need to irrigate them frequently, with the result being that more nutrients make it into the plants being grown, which then helps them grow more quickly.
In a way, solid rain is potentially to agriculture what hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") is proving to be for oil and gas production - a way to unlock much a greater production of resources than was previously possible due to small and systematic improvements in technology over time through human ingenuity.