The Sahara Forest Project – from the industrial to the ecological age

13 October 2013 (Last Updated October 13th, 2013 18:30)

The Sahara Forest Project in Qatar exploits abundant sea water to produce electricity and grow fresh crops using a synergy of technologies. As the project reaches its ninth month of operation, what clues does it give us about ecological innovation and complex interconnected technology systems?

The Sahara Forest Project  – from the industrial to the ecological age

Little more than a year-and-a-half ago engineer Bill Watts, biomimicry advocate Michael Pawlyn and an international environmental organisation, the Bellona Foundation, vowed they would 'turn the [Sahara] desert green', with an ambitious project featuring a salt-water cooled greenhouse for producing cucumbers and electricity and heat generation to be made via sun soaked mirrors and steam driven turbines.

After an intensive ten month building period funded by Yara International ASA and Qatar Fertilizer Company (QAFCO), the Sahara Forest Project was born in one of the driest areas of Qatar. Nine months on, the Sahara doesn't quite resemble rural farmland, but the project did celebrate its first harvest of cucumbers in December 2012 and its first barley crop in April this year.

"The Sahara project is centred on the complexity and ingenuity of bio-mimicry, as opposed to 'simple' human made systems."

"We have managed to continue highly productive agriculture throughout the hot summer and we are doing that with a 50% saving in fresh water compared to the conventional way of doing things," said Pawlyn, speaking at the Sustainability Innovation Summit in London this month.

The Sahara project is centred on the complexity and ingenuity of bio-mimicry, as opposed to 'simple' human made systems. For example, the seawater-cooled greenhouse where the cucumbers are grown is inspired by technology from the Namibian fog-basking beetle, which has evolved a way of harvesting its own fresh water in a desert.

"For just about every challenge we face their will be examples we can turn to in nature," Pawlyn explained.

"I do think it is going to be one of the most powerful sources of innovation and its going to facilitate the growing partnership from the industrial age to the ecological age"

Utilising abundant resources

One of the most impressive principles of the Sahara project is how it uses saltwater - something that is in abundance - to drive all elements of the project: electricity, cooled greenhouses and to produce freshwater for irrigation or drinking.

In order to produce electricity it uses a concentrated solar power plant (CSP), which uses mirrors to concentrate energy from the sun to create high enough temperatures to make steam, to drive a steam turbine, which in turn drives a generator to produce electricity.

"One of the most impressive principles of the Sahara project is how it uses saltwater - something that is in abundance."

This is coupled with a saltwater cooling system so that waste heat from the CSP process is dissipated using the roofs of the greenhouses in the complex.

It's this type of forward thinking, complementary 'connect the dots' system that makes the Sahara Forest Project both ambitious and unique.

Everything in the project is synergised together on purpose, to minimise waste and to tie together different aspects of established technologies so they work together in a complex flowing system - much like the body of a Namibian fog-basking beetle.

At its current scale this intertwining of technologies is working; it is scaling the project up that will be one of its creators' next challenges.

"What this is moving towards is a kind of ecosystem model in which you have a highly productive system with minimal waste," said Pawlyn.

"This is the kind of thing we are going to need to do if we are to move from rather simplistic industrial systems to industrial systems of the future."

The Sahara Forest team are now focusing their efforts in Aqaba, Jordan, where, after three feasibility studies that have just been completed, they will construct a 20-ha (200.000 sqm) Sahara Forest Project Demonstration Center, which will serve as a centre for innovation, competence building and demonstration of the economic viability of the Sahara Forest Project concept.

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