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ASU Regents Professor awarded for pioneering approach to soil restoration

Two men onstage smiling.

ASU Regents Professor Ferran Garcia-Pichel receives the Theodore M. Sperry Award from Society of Ecological Restoration champion and philanthropist Frank Mars. Photo courtesy the Society of Ecological Restoration

October 27, 2023

Arizona State University Regents Professor Ferran Garcia-Pichel was recently awarded the 2023 Theodore M. Sperry Award from the Society for Ecological Restoration during its world congress in Darwin, Australia.

The Sperry Award acknowledges individuals or institutions who have made substantial contributions to advancing the science or techniques used in restoration practice. In this Garcia-Pichel's case, the award was bestowed “for his innovative research into the role of microbiology in ecological restoration."

Garcia-Pichel studies the roles, adaptation and impacts of microbes in natural environments that range from desert soils to shallow marine waters. Much of his current research centers around biocrust restoration. Biocrusts are communities of living organisms that play a crucial role in maintaining soil health and ecosystem sustainability. However, agriculture, urbanization, off-road vehicle use and other activities can lead to the degradation of biocrusts.

Garcia-Pichel and his student researchers have developed many techniques for biocrust restoration, and most recently an innovative approach that takes advantage of existing solar energy farms as nurseries for generating fresh biocrusts.

The proof-of-concept study is called crustivoltaics. Garcia-Pichel and his team adapted a suburban solar farm in the lower Sonoran Desert as an experimental breeding ground for biocrusts.

“Ferran’s innovative application of microbiological and molecular ecological techniques into biocrust restoration during the last decade has transformed arid soil restoration. His latest contribution, ‘crustivoltaics,’ brings the promise of restoring biocrusts to regional scales tantalizingly close to reality,” said Osvaldo Sala, the founding director of the Global Drylands Center

“Crustivoltaics uses existing photovoltaic installations, common in deserts, to continually produce biocrust inoculum for restoration of local soils with return-on-investment ratios orders of magnitude larger than those of previous technologies, and has garnered much excitement in the field.”

The next step in Garcia-Pichel’s lab efforts is to scale up restoration efforts to decrease soil dust emissions at the regional scale by bringing together various stakeholders, like farmers, government agencies and the solar industry, with this common goal. 

“So far, all we have is a proof of concept, a pilot experiment; but everything indicates that we can make a big difference fast,” he said. “I wouldn't have thought it was possible if you had told me a decade ago that we would be here now. But seeing how close we are to making a big difference is very exciting.”

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