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New Math: Solar Power + Salt Water = Sahara Forest

The folks over at Sahara Forest Project have just alerted the Twitterverse that their new pilot facility in Qatar is good to go, and since we’ve been following that project since 2008 we’ll jump at the chance to update you on its progress from high concept to working hardware.

The idea behind Sahara Forest dovetails with the solutions we saw on a recent technology tour of Israel (sponsored by the organization Kinetis), namely, when you have several problems going on at once, mash them up together and see what happens.

In this case we’re talking about too much salt, too much sun, and not enough soil and water for farming. Israel found the key to the solution in brackish aquifer water, and Sahara Forest has come up with its own twist.

Sahara Forest Project

Sahara Forest concept courtesy of Sahara Forest Project.

The Sahara Forest Project

When Sahara Forest first came across CleanTechnica’s radar in 2008, we weighed in slightly over to the skeptical side, given the cost of solar power compared to other desert farming practices:

Of course, deserts can also produce lush vegetation using permaculture farming practices that are much cheaper to implement. But if countries are willing to invest in the Sahara Forest Project, more power to them—literally.

When we dropped in again in 2012 the idea of large scale solar powered greenhouses was beginning to gel, and right around this time last year we noticed that things were really starting to take off at the Qatar pilot plant:

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.

The basic idea behind Sahara Forest is that solar power could be used to evaporate seawater for a freshwater source, and seawater could also pull double duty as a coolant for the greenhouses.

So far Sahara Forest has reported that its Qatar greenhouses are competitive with European yields, while using half the water of conventional greenhouses in the region.

Another key strategy is to use evaporative hedges to cool outdoor growing zones, and that has also proven effective. Together, both the indoor and outdoor cooling strategies enable the facility’s concentrated solar power plant to operate without cooling towers.

You can get many more details, including results from the algae operation, from the Qatar Pilot Plant Report.

The Qatar Sahara Forest Pilot Plant

Since last year, Sahara Forest and its partners have achieved their goals on the way to officially rolling out the facility to the public, and in particular to United Nations climate delegates.

The main hurdle was running the Qatar pilot plant through its paces during extreme summertime conditions.

With that under its belt, Sahara Forest is confident that the facility is fully functional and demonstrates the potential for ramping up to commercial scale while also contributing to a knowledge base for future enhancements. In addition to the farming operation itself, the Qatar plant also hosts R&D facilities for desert agriculture with a focus on algae and halophyte (salt loving plants) cultivation, alongside its seawater-cooled greenhouses and solar power plants.

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Written By

Tina 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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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