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  • Author or Editor: Gerard J. Kluitenberg x
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Little attention has been paid to how the presence of roots influences water content measurements obtained with water content sensors. This issue is especially important if sensors are deployed in densely rooted soil or growth media. This work addresses the impact of roots on water content measurements obtained with dual-probe heat-pulse (DPHP) sensors. In the DPHP method, the maximum temperature rise in response to heating (Tmax) is used to calculate volumetric heat capacity, which in turn is used to calculate volumetric water content. The accuracy of DPHP sensors was evaluated in unrooted and rooted 0.25–1 mm baked ceramic aggregate. For both restricted and unrestricted volumes of aggregate the presence of roots caused DPHP sensors to consistently overestimate water content by 0.05–0.09 cm3·cm-3. Measured values of Tmax were lower in the presence of roots, which resulted in overestimation of volumetric heat capacity that was attributed to the high specific heat of water contained in roots in addition to that contained within the aggregate. Differences in water content and aggregate heating between unrooted and rooted aggregate equilibrated to the same matric potential were less distinct in unrestricted volumes, where the decrease in bulk density has the offsetting effect of lowering the heat capacity. Error in water content caused by the presence of roots and changes in bulk density was estimated by developing a theoretical mixing model for volumetric heat capacity that accounted for the heat capacity of all constituents, including aggregate, water, root water, and root tissue. Predicted errors in volumetric water content due to changes in bulk density or changes in heat capacity due to roots agreed well with direct measurement.

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Baked ceramic aggregates (fritted clay, arcillite) have been used for plant research both on the ground and in microgravity. Optimal control of water and air within the root zone in any gravity environment depends on physical and hydraulic properties of the aggregate, which were evaluated for 0.25-1-mm and 1-2-mm particle size distributions. The maximum bulk densities obtained by any packing technique were 0.68 and 0.64 g·cm-3 for 0.25-1-mm and 1-2-mm particles, respectively. Wettable porosity obtained by infiltration with water was ≈65%, substantially lower than total porosity of ≈74%. Aggregate of both particle sizes exhibited a bimodal pore size distribution consisting of inter-aggregate macropores and intra-aggregate micropores, with the transition from macro- to microporosity beginning at volumetric water content of ≈36% to 39%. For inter-aggregate water contents that support optimal plant growth there is 45% change in water content that occurs over a relatively small matric suction range of 0-20 cm H2O for 0.25-1-mm and 0 to -10 cm H2O for 1-2-mm aggregate. Hysteresis is substantial between draining and wetting aggregate, which results in as much as a ≈10% to 20% difference in volumetric water content for a given matric potential. Hydraulic conductivity was approximately an order of magnitude higher for 1-2-mm than for 0.25-1-mm aggregate until significant drainage of the inter-aggregate pore space occurred. The large change in water content for a relatively small change in matric potential suggests that significant differences in water retention may be observed in microgravity as compared to earth.

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