It’s been a while since we checked in on the Sahara Forest Project, but its first pilot facility just online went a few weeks ago so now is a good time to do some catching up. As for the goal of re-vegetating the Sahara desert, why stop there? With large chunks of the U.S. facing historic droughts, the project’s creative use of open space, saltwater and carbon dioxide to create new green jobs and re-vegetate desert lands sure sounds like a concept that could be useful over here, too.
The Sahara Forest Pilot Plant teams the project with Norway’s Yara ASA and Qatar’s Qafco. Yara is a nitrogen chemistry specialist and the world’s largest fertilizer supplier, and Qafco is a leader in urea and ammonia production, so you can see where this is going in terms of waste recovery and re-use.
Aside from the technology itself, one thing that stands out about the project is the speed with which it happened. Once all the agreements were signed, construction began early last year and was completed within a year.
That speed underscores the developers’ insistence that the project is not “rocket science.” Some of the technology is innovative but none of it could be called experimental in a high-risk way. The real breakthrough is in engineering new combinations and systems.
Beyond Sustainability, to Restorative Technology
The key to the whole project is bringing saltwater inland, where it can be desalinated using renewable energy and then put to use locally.
The pilot project went with concentrating solar power (CSP), which normally would require copious amounts of fresh water for cooling. That problem was resolved with a saltwater cooling system that piggybacks on the project’s greenhouse roofs, using them to dissipate heat.
The solar installation itself serves multiple purposes: desalinating seawater, warming the greenhouses in winter, and regenerating dehumidifying materials.
As the first CSP unit to go online in Qatar, the facility is also doing double duty as a research station leading to the development of larger operations. One of the things they’ll be looking at is locating the CSP’s many mirror units in re-vegetated areas (plants can boost CSP performance by reducing dust in the area).
Aside from greenhouse operations, the pilot plant also features outdoor plantings for animal fodder and bioenergy feedstock using desalinated seawater.
Using saltwater to cultivate halophytes (salt-loving plants) is a tricky business because of the potential damage to soil and groundwater, so the pilot facility is also testing low-cost methods for getting around those obstacles.
A commercial scale algae test facility rounds out the pilot plant, with the aim of producing nutriceuticals, biofuels, and fodder for animals and fish.
The Circular Economy and the Sahara Forest Project
The charitable organization Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been articulating a vision for a “circular economy” that is perfectly reflected in the Sahara Forest project.
As with the circular economy concept, Sahara Forest aims to create economic growth by putting materials and products that were formerly wasted together in new configurations, with the help of renewable energy.
To that end, Sahara Forest envisions the growth of green jobs in the desert:
“In addition to mitigating effects of climate change and contributing to conflict reduction in resource-scarce areas, the SFP facilities will provide employment for both high- and low-skilled workers. Programs and facilities for knowledge transfer and training will be established to ensure that long-term social and economic development opportunities are created.”
Sustainability Twofers, and Threefers
We’ve been calling this sort of thing a sustainability twofer, or for that matter a threefer (and why stop at three?), but whether you call it a circular economy, synergy, restorative growth or whatever, the basic idea is that we already have enough resources to ensure a sustainable future, we just have to figure out better ways to put them to use.
h/t: Biofuels Digest.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.