Published on April 19th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Sahara Forest Project Grows Food, And Biofuel

April 19th, 2014 by  

We’ve been following the Sahara Forest Project in Qatar since 2008, but somehow we missed an interesting connection with the US Department of Energy. The connection is the Energy Department’s Algae Biomass Consortium, of which the Sahara Forest Project is a member. That brings into focus how both of these oil-rich countries are beginning to develop transitional economic models that prepare for a future in which their domestic petroleum reserves become less competitive in global energy markets.

We had a chance to speak with Dr. Virginia Corless, Science and Development Manager of The Sahara Forest Project, earlier this month at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, and she helped us tease out some of the implications of that transition.

Sahara Forest Project

Cucumbers growing at Sahara Forest Project (courtesy of SFP)

An Integrated Economic System Based On Solar Energy

To clarify, although the pilot and R&D facility of the Sahara Forest Project is located in Qatar, the developer is a company of the same name, based in Norway.

Like the name implies, the Sahara Forest Project aims to grow market-competitive crops in desert regions, through an innovative integration of existing water and energy technologies with conservation strategies.

When the project first crossed CleanTechnica’s radar back in 2008, the main thing that caught our eye was the potential for using solar energy to desalinate seawater. The next time we checked in was 2012, when the project began to take shape around a concentrating solar power system.

Last year the pilot facility went on line and we had an aha moment. We were kind of assuming all along that the Sahara Forest Project was geared toward creating a sustainable model for developing nations, but in the context of California’s devastating drought it finally occurred to us that the Sahara Forest Project model would be quite useful right here in the US.

As it turns out, we were pretty much on track. Although the Sahara Forest Project is designed to come up with exportable strategies it is not necessarily a one size fits all solution, and Dr. Corless noted that its application to other countries depends at least partly on the existence of a developed infrastructure.

Local Food And Energy Hubs

Earlier this year, the Sahara Forest Project announced the successful completion of a vegetable crop cycle that demonstrated the potential for market competition with greenhouses in Europe. Dr. Corless pointed out that this mark was achieved despite the extreme conditions of the desert location.

That crop happened to be cucumbers, which Dr. Corless explained were chosen to launch the project because, among other reasons, cucumbers are sensitive to salt. The ability of cucumbers to thrive at the project is a good indicator of the potential for other crops to do well.

The project also includes an algae biomass component, and that’s where it intersects with the US Department of Energy.

US interest in algae biofuel took off under the Obama Administration on multiple fronts, including the launch of the Algae Biomass Consortium with the help of $85 million in 2009 Recovery Act funding.

The Sahara Forest Project joined the Consortium representing the nonprofit sector, and it looks like things are already starting to cook. Last summer, a promising strain of algae was discovered at the Sahara Forest Project and Consortium member Duke University is currently analyzing its potential for biofuel.

With an algae biofuel component the Sahara Forest Project dovetails with Obama Administration energy policy, which supports local biofuel crops as a pathway to regional energy resiliency.

That’s on top of the economic development opportunities afforded by the food growing aspect of the project, along with high value algae products such as cosmetics and nutraceuticals.

As climate-related drought becomes a more permanent fixture in parts of the US, lessons learned in the Qatari desert could make all the difference in a sustainable future for the American economy.

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About the Author

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+.

  • JamesWimberley

    I don’t mean to pour cold seawater on this promising initiative, but. Qatar is nowhere near the Sahara. That isn’t significant by itself. The key point is that Qatar is very rich and by the sea. Neither condition holds for real Saharan countries like Mali. Low-tech tree-planting and water conservation is more likely to improve their lot. Eventually some of the project’s advanced technology may be adapted to the needs of poor countries.

    • TinaCasey

      Actually, good point. Dr. Corless was pretty clear about that — as a package, this type of integrated facility is best suited for countries with developed infrastructure, but given its R&D goals there is potential for coming up with low cost, low tech solutions to fit a broader range of circumstances.

  • Steven F

    I don’t see large scale microalgae cultivation ever becoming common. The big problem with microscopic algae is that a desired species often cannot compete with wind blown spores species . So in an open pond will initially work well but after a period of time the output may drop as other species take hold.. the only way to tell when an unwanted species is present is through lab testing. and then when one is present how to you get it out of the pond?

    A better alternative is seaWeed.. All you need is aerated sea water. You can easily see and remove a undesirable species without a lab. All the products you can make from microscopic algae can also be made from seaweed and it is often used as food today in asia. It has also historically used as a fertilizer and soil amendment on farms.

    • Michael Berndtson

      Interesting stuff. Your central thesis is supported with years of work on bioremediation of spills. This could be oil spills on sea or land. In an open setting it’s best to let mother nature do her thing with organisms. We can simply just help with environmental inputs like oxygen and nutrients.

      A lot of study and funding was put into super bugs to little success. However, once the indigenous bacteria acclimated and inputs were sufficient, petroleum hydrocarbons became lunch.

      In closed systems like brewery kettles and algae reactors we have greater success with engineered species.

      • Bob_Wallace

        There’s some reason that the ‘natural’ algae grows better and takes off.
        Why would we assume that the genetic engineers won’t figure out what that is and engineer it into their versions?

        • Otis11

          To my understanding: Many times the trait that we want is what makes the engineered species less competitive. That’s also why that type of strain doesn’t naturally exist and we have to engineer it…

          But there could be more to the problem too – I’m not an environmental engineer.

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