Measuring very negative water potentials with polymer tensiometers: Principles, performance and applications

Gerrit H. de Rooij, Martine J. van der Ploeg, Hermanus P.A. Gooren, Gerben Bakker, Cornelis W. Hoogendam, Cindy Huiskes, Henk Kruidhof, Luuk K. Koopal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


In recent years, a polymer tensiometer (POT) was developed and tested to directly measure matric potentials in dry soils. By extending the measurement range to wilting point (a 20-fold increase compared to conventional, water-filled tensiometers), a myriad of previously unapproachable research questions are now open to experimental exploration. Furthermore, the instrument may well allow the development of more water-efficient irrigation strategies by recording water potential rather than soil water content. The principle of the sensor is to fill it with a polymer solution instead of water, thereby building up osmotic pressure inside the sensor. A high-quality ceramic allows the exchange of water with the soil while retaining the polymer. The ceramic has pores sufficiently small to remain saturated even under very negative matric potentials. Installing the sensor in an unsaturated soil causes the high pressure of the polymer solution to drop as the water potentials in the soil and in the POT equilibrate. As long as the pressure inside the polymer chamber remains sufficiently large to prevent cavitation, the sensor will function properly. If the osmotic potential in the polymer chamber can produce a pressure of approximately 2.0 MPa when the sensor is placed in water, proper readings down to wilting point are secured. Various tests in disturbed soil, including an experiment with root water uptake, demonstrate the operation and performance of the new polymer tensiometer and illustrate how processes such as root water uptake can be studied in more detail than before. The paper discusses the available data and explores the long term perspectives offered by the instrument.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)438-442
Number of pages5
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2009


  • Aridity
  • Irrigation
  • Root water uptake
  • Soil physics
  • Soil water
  • Tensiometer
  • Water stress


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