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The world’s total population right now stands at 6.8 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To sustain this many people well into the future, 60 percent of the extra food required must come from irrigated agriculture. Seventy-five percent of the world’s irrigated area is in developing countries, where small-scale rural farmers cultivate more than half of this agricultural land.
The common irrigation practice is to flood the field with seasonal water or from gravity-fed systems or diesel/gasoline-powered pumps. Carolina Barreto, a doctoral student in the University’s solar energy engineering program, along with Mechanical Engineering Prof. John Duffy, have come up with a low-cost, highly efficient drip-irrigation system that doesn’t rely on fossil fuel to power the pump. Their project recently received a $46,839 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance.
“The aim of this project is to provide farmers in developing countries with an affordable, eco-friendly and easy irrigation method that promotes the sustainable use of water and energy,” says Duffy.
The solar drip-irrigation system uses an inexpensive, low-pressure 12-volt diaphragm pump that is hooked up to a 250-watt photovoltaic array. “Solar-powered pumps are clean, efficient and require low maintenance,” he says. A prototype of the system was installed in January 2008 in Turripampa, Peru, which enjoys abundant sunshine throughout the year.
Barreto says water delivery per unit area, using drip lines at the plants’ root level, is 40 percent more efficient than traditional irrigation furrows since less water is lost due to evaporation and seepage in sandy soils. Liquid fertilizer could also be applied to the field through the drip lines, reducing labor costs and weed growth. “Depending on the crop cycle, drip irrigation could allow up to three harvests per year instead of one in the rainy season, generating enough income to quickly pay for the system,” she says.
This project is sustained as part of UMass Lowell’s decade-old Village Empowerment program with indigenous Peruvian farmers.