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Solar energy and seawater to transform desert into oasis
by Matt Marusiak on January 28, 2011
Environmental degradation, such desertification, often occurs due to human activities that convert land to agricultural or industrial uses. But what if engineering know-how is used to turn deserts into oases instead? That is precisely what the Kingdom of Jordan hopes to do in partnership with the Sahara Forest Project. By combining solar energy and seawater greenhouse technologies, Jordan hopes to make the desert bloom.
The Sahara Forest Project is an initiative by British firms Seawater Greenhouse Ltd., Exploration Architecture, and Max Fordham Consulting Engineers, as well as the Norwegian Bellona Foundation. This team recognizes that the complex, interrelated environmental and energy problems need solutions that apply a synergy of technologies. By using sun and seawater to transform unproductive land, the Sahara Forest Project hopes to demonstrate that land can be re-vegetated and provide food, energy, and clean water.
The concept was first unveiled at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, which led to an audience with King Abdullah II of Jordan last year. Jordan’s access to the Red Sea and its abundance of arid land – as well as its growing need for food – makes the country an ideal candidate for the project. With the support of the king, the Sahara Forest Project team will start building a pilot plant in 2012 on a 50-acre site near Aqaba.
The two technologies that will be used are seawater greenhouses and concentrated solar power. In a seawater greenhouse, air first passes through an evaporator trickling with warm seawater and becomes humidified. The air is then cooled by contacting a series of tubes through which cool seawater is flowing, and freshwater condenses out of the cooled air and is collected. A portion of the freshwater is used to grow food crops in the greenhouse, and native vegetation is planted downwind to flourish in the remaining humidified air. Concentrated solar power uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight both to heat the evaporator seawater, as well as to create steam from the rest of the freshwater to generate electricity.
The challenge of the project will be to demonstrate that it can be self-sustaining in terms of both energy used and the amount of nutrients needed to grow food. Regardless, the Sahara Forest Project is an unquestionably ambitious project that will be closely watched by the environmental community.