Nanomaterial overcomes weather woes in bid to save scorched land

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Aug. 21, 2003 — A nanomaterial-based compound designed to reclaim land lost to forest fires is getting its first major workout in challenging weather.

“We’re dodging thunderstorms every day,” said Richard Maile, president of Sequoia Pacific Research Co. LLC, speaking on a mobile phone in the mountains near Taos, N.M., last week. “That presents a certain obstacle but other than that, it’s going pretty much as planned.”

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A fire caused by lightning last month scorched more than 5,000 acres of forest and the Taos Pueblo Native American tribe’s Encebado Mountain. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) selected Sequoia’s patent-pending nanoengineered organic material to drop on 1,400 acres of charred land. The agency hopes the material will bind to the soil to protect it from erosion and stimulate growth. A BIA official told the Albuquerque Journal that the contract, signed with Aero Tech Inc. of Clovis, N.M., was worth nearly $4 million.

Maile said this is the first major application of Sequoia’s soil binder, a nanostructured matrix of organic, biodegradable concentrate called SoilSET. Once the concentrate has been mixed with water, an electrochemical reaction creates an organic binder at the nanoscale, which sticks to soil to retain water. It also reduces runoff and helps germinate seeds.

Since Aug. 1, Utah-based Sequoia has been working with Aero Tech and Oregon-based Erickson Air-Crane, which has used a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to apply the product. Maile said the technique is similar to aerial hydroseeding, but the organic binder offers “heightened functionality,” which means, among other things, that it lasts longer and can withstand harsh weather.

Although the company is using the Taos project as its official commercial launch, the material has been studied for several years. SoilSET was field-tested in March 2002 on a burn area in California’s Mendocino National Forest.

Bob Faust, Mendocino’s forest hydrologist, said Sequoia and Erickson Air-Crane treated two locations on six acres of a steep dry drainage area where erosion occurs. The application included 500 pounds of product and 2,000 gallons of water — a job that would have taken 3,500 gallons with other methods.

Faust said his evaluation one month later found no evidence of growth because of a lack of rain, but the material was still sticking to the soil. At six months, the evaluators found new growth coming up through the binder.  Although the material had dissolved after one year — and a three-day spell of storms that left 10 inches of rain — Faust said it could be useful if applied with seeds before the rainy season. That way, the ground cover could grow before the mulch disappears.

“There’s no current method to stabilize the banks — not on a large basis,” he said. “It’s encouraging …the way the product stayed on the slope.”

Mendocino botanist David Isle said Sequoia’s soil binder was effective at holding the soil, which is crucial for new growth. But some annual plants native to the area had trouble breaking through the binder’s hard layer. He said that compromise could be overcome with a zebra approach on large slopes — alternate 50-100-foot swaths of treated and untreated land that could work together to protect soil and encourage biodiversity.

Sequoia officials also commissioned a study at University of Nevada, Reno. Biochemistry professor Grant Cramer, the researcher who tested the prospective product, said it helped to keep soil together and enhanced moisture retention.

Those and other tests led Maile to form what was Zion Pacific Research Co. 2 1/2 years ago with Chief Executive Terry Holmes and Chief Technology Officer Larry Rogers, who developed the nanosilicate crystallization technology. Zion changed its name to Sequoia earlier this year.

The privately held company also spun off a separate unit called Sierra Pacific Research Company, which uses the same technology for a non-toxic concentrate intended to kill anthrax and other biological threats.

Sequoia officials said they intend SoilSET to be the first of five nano-based products, including radioactive waste disposal as well as synthetic solid fuels and building materials. The firm does not intend to manufacture the nanosilicate technology; rather it seeks to market and license it to “mature global markets.”

Although he’s unfamiliar with Sequoia’s technology, it appears useful and effective to Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University.

“Nano is so new that you have to evaluate it very carefully. … It’s certainly true that any new applications that demonstrate an improvement to the environment, such as soil binding, can help significantly with the environmental currency of nanotech,” he said.

“It sounds like a very safe application, and probably very good for the field.”


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