Making the desert green

The Sahara Forest Project first presented its dream of building the world’s first facility to combine a seawater-based greenhouse, concentrated solar power (CSP) system, and re-vegetation of desert areas during the UN Climate Negotiations COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Three years later, its vision is being realized.

 

(Caption: The Sahara Forest Project pilot facility in Qatar will provide a unique research platform to demonstrate and optimize environmental technologies that will enable restorative growth in desert areas around the world. 1. Concentrated solar power, 2. Saltwater greenhouses, 3. Outside vegetation and evaporative hedges, 4. Photovoltaic solar power, 5. Salt production, 6. Halophytes, 7. Algae production, Credit: Sahara Forest Project)

 

The Oslo-based non-profit foundation teamed up in February 2012 as a commercial company with Norwegian fertilizer company Yara and Qatar Fertiliser Company (Qafco) in a USD 5 million project to build a one-hectare pilot station in the desert. When completed this December, it will use seawater from the Persian Gulf to grow algae and halophytes (plants that thrive on salt). Mirrors will concentrate solar rays to generate heat useful to produce energy and soft water for irrigation and mass production of vegetables such as cucumbers and animal fodder with the help of captured CO2.

 

The pilot project has been hailed as a “truly carbon negative solution” because it optimizes the production of food, water and energy in a system that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. There will even be evaporative hedges, which provide humidity and shelter for a variety of plant species, and ponds for reducing brine to dry salts

 

“What is pretty unique in this project is that it uses salt water to cool greenhouses, provide humidity and some fresh water,” said Joakim Hauge, Sahara Forest Project president and evolutionary scientist. “Others have to use fossil fuels to desalinate.”

 

Hauge says the project was inspired by the Namibian Fog Basking Beetle, which lives in the desert and collects moisture on its shell in the morning by dipping its wings into the small bumps of its shell. The little black insect is an example of biomimicry, the process of using material principles from nature to make man-made things and a speciality area for Michael Pawlyn, one of the three Sahara Forest Project board members and the author of the book “Biomimicry in Architecture.”

 

Biomimicry is one of the three main premises behind the Sahara Forest Project. The other two are solving the innate dilemma between food, energy and water scarcity and closing the waste loop by using waste as a resource for another.

 

“Easily one solution for one area becomes a problem for another,” said Hauge, who is also brother to Fredrik Hauge, president of environmental organisation Bellona and Sahara Forest Project board member. “We look at energy, food and water security as a holistic principle.”

yara research centre

(Caption: Yara Research Centre in Germany. Credit: Ole Walter Jacobsen/Yara)

 

Water Scarcity

 Yara has a long-term relationship to Bellona and believes these goals are closely linked to its approach of addressing food security, water scarcity, and climate change in a sustainable way, applying innovative and environmental technologies and efficient use of scare resources as farmland and fresh water.

 

“We hope to capture learning that will have important future input on drier areas such as Africa, South of Europe, Asia where water is scarce,” said Pierre Herben, Yara chief technology officer. “For us it makes sense to build projects around water scarcity.”

 

Yara will contribute project management for the Qatar project, its knowledge on plant nutrition and supply low carbon footprint fertilizer solutions, as well as fertilizers used in desert areas. Yara has a research centre in Hanninghof, Germany that is providing its competence on crop nutrition and a Brussels-based project manager overseeing the pilot plant. The project will also reinforce its link with Qafco, which is co-owned by Industries Qatar (75%) and Yara (25%).

 

Although there are several saltwater greenhouses in the world, the Qatar pilot plant is the first that combines so many different elements, such as concentrated saltwater ponds, evaporative ponds, and algae production, according to Herben. In addition to enabling the growth of halophytes (Salicornia), it can help lower the salinity levels in the soil to produce more edible crops at a later stage.

 

“A couple of years later, you could potentially grow cabbage if the salinity goes down from 20% to 10%,” said Herben.

 

If successful, the impact on the area could be huge. The pilot plant could be a key step in solving food scarcity issues while helping diversify the country’s oil-rich economy, adds Herben. The hope is that the plants will test the pilot station’s capabilities and that more crops can eventually be grown both near and far from the base station.

 

Expanding in Jordan

 In addition to Qatar, the Sahara Forest Project is simultaneously in the middle of feasibility studies for a salt-water based test and demonstration centre in Jordan 20 hectares in size. Located 15 kilometres inland north of Aqaba airport, the centre will feature an algae facility, saltwater greenhouses, external vegetation and evaporative hedges, designed stepped protection for flash floods, facilities for research and accommodation, concentrates solar power facilities and evaporative ponds.

 

The project materialized after the Sahara Forest Project concept was presented to the King of Jordan during a state visit to Oslo in 2010. Jordan has provided the project 20 hectares of land, while the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has contributed funding for the recently completed feasibility studies. The Jordanian project will build upon the experience gained at Qatar, but is designed to provide an innovation centre interacting with local and international academia as well as to demonstrate a commercial production of crops. There is even hope that it could be expanded to 200 hectares in the future.

 

The eventual hope is that the Sahara Forest Project will lead to commercial projects in desert areas. Hauge believes if the Qatar model were expanded to a commercial 200 hectare facility, annually the site could produce 20,000 tonnes of fruits and vegetables, 500 tonnes of other crops for fodder and fuels, 5,400 tonnes of seafood, 31 tonnes of beta carotene, 600,000 cubic metres of methane, 140,000 tonnes salt, 51,000 cubic metres freshwater and 10 GWh of electricity.

 

“The key message is holistic and restorative growth,” said Hauge. “In the past there has been an extractive process and in the nineties sustainable growth. But in some areas that is not enough and we have to bring back to the area. That’s why it’s called restorative growth.”

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