BY JOHN REYNOLDS
THE GOVERNMENTS of Norway and Jordan are backing an innovative pilot project to create a renewable energy based, sustainable farming oasis in the Sahara desert using concentrated solar power and a low-cost, sustainable method of water desalination.
The Sahara Project’s founders – designer Charlie Paton, engineer Bill Watts of Max Fordham Engineers and architect Michael Pawlyn, all of whom are British – secured the support of the two governments, along with €85 million of funding, after recently joining forces with the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental organisation.
The project will be developed on 200,000sq m of land in Aqaba, on the south coast of Jordan, where the team will be able to demonstrate the feasibility of combining the two key technologies to produce large amounts of food, water and renewable energy.
They also aim to reverse desertification.
A key element of the plan is the Seawater Greenhouse, a proven technology designed by Paton that is already used in several countries including Australia, Oman and the UAE.
It involves the same precipitation-evaporation-condensation cycle that creates rainfall. Under controlled conditions, desert air is sucked through a filter of seawater – from the Red Sea, in the case of the pilot plant – which removes dust and pollen. The air is also cooled and humidified, creating optimal growing conditions for crops in the greenhouse.
The dampened air then passes to another section of the greenhouse, over pipes filled with hot seawater (heated by solar energy). As the air’s temperature increases, it reaches its saturation point and is cooled using cold seawater. The contrast in temperatures causes condensation and desalination, producing freshwater.
This freshwater will be heated by solar power to provide steam to drive a turbine, generating electricity. In turn, the electricity will be used to power the greenhouse’s pumps and fans. The water will also be used to grow crops around the greenhouse, while any excess heat from the solar plant can also be used for desalination.
Before the seawater is evaporated, it can also be used to grow micro-algae, seaweed, shellfish, shrimp and fish. The waste products of these processes can be used as fertiliser and soil conditioner to rejuvenate desert soil.
The project’s synergies also include the provision of water needed to keep the solar mirrors free from dust and operating efficiently. The greenhouse’s evaporators also make efficient dust traps.
Within recorded history, large tracts of the Sahara and other deserts were covered with forests of cypress, cedar and other plants, and one of the aims of the project is to prove that sustainable technologies can be applied to desert areas to restore some level of vegetation.
The project will now enter the next three stages of its development: in-depth studies in 2011, construction of a demonstration centre, to begin in 2012, and commercial scale development beginning in 2015.
The Jordanian government has granted an additional 500 acres of land to the project’s founders, for later expansion.
“We are very happy for the support of Jordanian and Norwegian governments. It is encouraging that we share the same vision of a more integral approach to solving challenges in the food, water and energy sector,” said Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation and a founding partner of Sahara Forest Project.
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