New Prospects and Challenges for Science and Education in the MENA Region Humboldt Kolleg
This past weekend I had the pleasure to attend the "New Prospects and Challenges for Science and Education in the MENA Region Humboldt Kolleg," a gathering of scientists from across the Mediterranean region which met in Marrakech from March 9-11th in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas, information, and to discuss upcoming challenges and recent success in the region. The conference was organized by the Alexander von Humboldt Mediterranean Network and many in attendance were "Humboldtians" or academics who have had the honor of participating in one of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's many opportunities to conduct or undertake research.
Opening the first day of the three-day conference were a series of notable speakers, each of whom stressed what would be one of the conference's overarching themes. Dr. Habib Ben Yahya, Secretary-General of the Arab Maghreb Union, began by noting that the conference was a key indicator of the importance Morocco has placed in education on its path towards development, and of its continued desire to improve and better its educational system. Ambassador Micheal Witter of the Federal Republic of Germany noted that the recent events of the Arab Spring are evidence of interests such as civic values which are shared on both sides of the Mediterranean. In Morocco this has meant a steady process of institutional reform, and his Excellency was pleased by Morocco's continued commitment to this path of reform. Dr. Enno Aufderheide Secretary-General of the Humboldt Foundation, highlighted the fact that scientific exchanges such as the conference were crucial since they allowed participants to not only share ideas and research but also adapt new discoveries to the needs of their societies. Building upon all of these themes, Dr. William Lawrence, North Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, stressed not only the many challenges, such as youth unemployment, a shortage of teachers, and high food prices, facing the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, but also the opportunities which adapting and commercializing new technologies can hold for solving such problems.
The Conference also included a specific session focusing on emerging research in the energy sector in which conference participants where invited to present some of their recent work. Highlights that were particularly relevant to North Africa included:
Solar Updraft Advances:
Dr. Rüttiger-Höttler of Ruhr University spoke about the possibility of implementing Solar Updraft plants across the Mediterranean region. Solar Updraft plants work by heating a surface area, or collector area, around a central cooling tower. The difference in temperatures between the two areas causes an updraft, essentially winds, which can then be used to power turbines and generate electricity.Dr. Rüttiger-Höttler noted that solar updraft is well-suited to the conditions found in North Africa, including high levels of isolation, no need for precious water resources to cool the plants or run the turbines, and North Africa's lack of violent storms, one of the major dangers to the plants, due to their tall, isolated central cooling towers. Dr. Rüttiger-Höttler also noted that there remain significant obstacles to implementing solar updraft technology, including high costs, the need to keep the collector area clean, and the achilles heel of solar power generation -- power storage.
A "Third Generation" of Quantum-Dot Nano Solar Cells:
Presented by Dr. Waleed A. Badawy of Cairo University, this "third generation" (the first generation being conventional or "traditional" photo-voltaic cells, and the second generation being "thin-films") can produce large amounts of electricity while occupying a fraction of the space, primarily using quantum dots, or extremely small pieces of semi-conductor material. Dr. Badawy's particular research has focused on the techniques for creating such cells on pieces of porous silicon, and his lab-tested efficiency of 10-15% coupled with their small size and ease of installation could make these micro-cells competitive with other energy sources, especially in a region with as much sunlight as North Africa. The only remaining obstacle is the high cost of materials, in particular porous silicon. Finding an alternative material or a cheaper method of production could lead to exciting new developments in this area.
Smart Maintenance for Wind Farms:
Dr. Sabry of the Mansoura University Nanotechnology center presented his recent innovation at on of Egypt's largest wind projects. This new system, which is composed of a series of wireless sensors which give accurate and up-to-date information on possible problems in the hundreds of windmills, allows engineers to schedule preventative maintenance at low wind times, preventing costly losses in production. Likewise, the accuracy and timeliness of the data allows engineers to stop or change the operation of individual windmills, preventing possible damage in the event of malfunction. Overall the system's main advantage is that is allows the wind farm to operate without a regular and unnecessary maintenance schedule -- a practice which is inefficient and can significantly reduce the overall output of a wind farm.
Moroccan Renewable Energy Markets:
Dr. Amine Bennouna of Cadi Ayyad University, spoke about the Moroccan market for renewable energy, noting in particular, its continued potential, especially as the overall Moroccan economy continues to grow. He observed that certain sources of renewable energy, such as photo-voltaic, have reached grid parity and that there is therefore no longer a need for government mechanisms such as a feed-in tariff to encourage growth. Furthermore, developments in Morocco such as a new framework for companies to supply their own power will only add to this expansion. One of his most startling, although not unwarranted, predictions was that due to this grid parity, decentralized solar photo-voltaic power capacity (mainly in the form of private installations) could reach as much as 1.8GW in the next ten years, without the need for any type of government incentive. He did note one shortcoming in the Moroccan energy market -- the low amount of solar-thermal both overall and in relation to population. Dr. Bennouna also mentioned his new book Monographe de l'Energie au Maroc, which is sure to become an important and authoritative reference in the field of Moroccan renewable energy markets. Look for a forthcoming review on this blog.
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