Say Goodbye to Turf Toe and Say Hello to Hydroponics

There are over a dozen professional sports that take place on grass, the most popular being soccer and football. Since the use of artificial turf in the MLB Astrodome in 1966, artificial turf has become a widely used surface for professional and recreational sports facilities. Artificial turf boasts many advantages over natural grass fields including no irrigation or mowing and it is climate-independent. Barren lands can now be blessed with lush green fields, though it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows for the synthetic monocot. 

Synthetic grass has been the recipient of much pushback from players and coaches, citing unnatural ball dynamics and fast wear. Additionally, serious health concerns have been raised. On hot days, players have experienced debilitating blistering on their feet due to the extreme surface temperatures artificial pitches can reach. Another concern has been the negative impact the hardened surface has on players’ joints as there is usually a layer of concrete under the turf. The sustainability of artificial turf has also been questioned. Rubber “crumbs” are spread throughout the turf and these become runoff in the surrounding environment, raising pollution concerns. Due to all these detriments, many professional sports venues have cut artificial turf from their stadiums. 

In September 2020, NFL Players Association president JC Tretter used the increased injuries as the basis for a campaign to sway the remaining 15 NFL teams still using artificial turf to make the switch to natural grass. In addition to injuries, some studies have concluded that installing and maintaining artificial turf is actually no cheaper than traditional natural grass. This obviously isn’t the case for the remaining NFL teams still using artificial turf; otherwise, they would have already made the switch back to natural grass. As already mentioned, a major deterrent from using natural grass is irrigation and maintenance. 

Irrigation isn’t cheap, especially in areas with sensitive water supply due to climate impact. If only there were a way to reduce the amount of water needed… Enter hydroponics. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in water without soil or in contact with water through a soilless medium. A professor and researcher at the United Arab Emirates University has a plan for making playing fields great again while reducing irrigation costs immensely.  

Moustafa Amin Fadel, Ph.D is the inventor behind the UAE University patent application published in October 2021. Dr. Fadel invented a way of creating natural grass athletic playing fields using hydroponics, addressing some of the concerns with artificial turf and natural grass. The main concern addressed is irrigation. Hydroponics uses a closed loop water circulation system that allows for the sterilization and reuse of used water, making it attractive for field developers. The system needs to be able to support the weight and impact of the players, which won’t happen if the grass is grown directly over the water. A steel grid layer separates the grass from an additional perforated corrugated steel sheet below it that acts as a vertical spring and pathway for water transport and root growth. Below the corrugated spring layer is an additional steel grid sheet which assists in the horizontal movements of the spring layer, giving it the “resilience of soil.” Dr. Fadel’s invention seems to address the surface hardness concerns, but without it being reduced to practice, it is difficult to compare its dynamics to natural soil grass fields. 

Figure 1 of the U.S. Patent Publication 20210307257 depicting the hydroponic system and layer components and ordering.

Dr. Fadel envisions his invention being used in indoor and outdoor applications, in athletics stadiums, on yachts, and even in homes. Another visionary has already begun the process. Capillary Bunkers has a patented hydroponic irrigation system that uses capillary concrete. The turf layer is separated from the capillary concrete by a layer of sand. Sand is traditionally used in many natural grass fields that players enjoy playing on, so this would be an easy transition for athletes. Capillary Bunkers has installed its patented system in many golf courses around the world including Le Golf National, host of the 2018 Ryder Cup. 

Could hydroponic turf systems be the future of athletic playing fields? It looks like we’re headed that way. The initial cost will be the hurdle to cross, but reduced irrigation and maintenance costs should be the seller. 

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