How Electricity, Water And Food Could Be Produced In Desert Areas With Minimal Ecological Footprint


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

The first pilot plant in a program of installations that can sustainably produce crops, electricity, biofuels, and even plants for re-vegetation efforts in a desert environment is now up and running in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar.

The Sahara Forest Project, which brings outfits from both Qatar and Norway together, uses desert air, sunlight, and saltwater as inputs for a system that aims to be environmentally sustainable, beneficial for local human development, and financially viable over the long term. As the project’s CEO, Joakim Hauge, puts it: “The Sahara Forest Project is all about taking what we have enough of, like saltwater, CO2, sunlight, and deserts, to produce what we need more of: sustainably produced food, water, and energy.” The hope is that the pilot project can be scaled up to installations in drier and desert climates around the world.

Essentially, the plant takes multiple sustainable technologies and integrates their inputs and outputs into a single multistage system, thus minimizing both waste and ecological footprint:

  • Standard solar power and concentrated solar power: Arrays of mirrors create concentrated solar power by aiming sunlight to superheat seawater into steam. That steam can then drive turbines to create electricity, and the heated seawater is then used throughout the greenhouse system. Additional sustainable electricity is generated from arrays of standard solar photovoltaic panels.
  • Saltwater for fresh water and cool air for greenhouses: Hot desert air is pulled through a flow of seawater as it enters the greenhouses. This both cools and humidifies the air, creating optimal growing conditions for the agricultural crops within. At the far end of the greenhouse, the air is heated by flows of sun-heated seawater and then encounters pipes of cooled seawater, which causes the humidity to condense into fresh water that is then used for crop irrigation.
  • Outdoor vegetation: Outside the greenhouses, the seawater passes through further evaporators to create humidity for vegetation sheltered outdoors. These include trees for desert reforestation, local vegetation, various forms of crops and livestock feed, and specific forms of plants naturally adapted to salt water which serve as feedstocks for bioenergy production and other uses. At the end, remaining seawater is collected into evaporation pools for the production of salt.
  • Algae biofuel production: Lab-grown algae, which have been shown to generate up to 30 times more biofuel per acre than other plants, are grown in saltwater pools to create biofuels without taking up agricultural land or crops that double as food for humans.

The basic advantage of the Sahara Forest Project is that it doesn’t use any fundamentally new or experimental technology — it merely recombines established technologies in creative ways.

At the same time, at least one of its goals — growing plants for reforestation — may be overly ambitious. “Trying to grow trees in the Sahara desert is not the most appropriate approach,” Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told National Geographic back in 2010. “I can imagine that this scheme and type of technology in limited cases might work in certain areas like Dubai, where they’re used to making palm-shaped islands and 160-story-tall buildings.”

But for the more modest goal of returning a desert to its natural former ecosystem, “it would be more effective, but less flashy, to work with local people on community-based natural-resource management.”

26 Responses to How Electricity, Water And Food Could Be Produced In Desert Areas With Minimal Ecological Footprint

  1. Superman1 says:

    Very interesting. As the article states, much is known technology, and except for maybe the biofuels component, could have been done decades ago. In 1961, I designed a solar concentrator-Rankine Cycle combination for Space power. It alone could do all the first bullet requires. There is a demo plant in Spain for this solar concentrator technology.

  2. rollin says:

    Are these guys kidding? What is the cost of all this high tech equipment per output? They are already feeding themselves by buying up land in other countries, why not grow the trees there and use the solar power just to distill water and provide electricity?
    Bio-diesel from algae is incredibly inefficient at this point.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I like the last sentence. We need to redress the disempowerment and damage done by colonialism, World Bank projects and climate change caused primarily by the rich countries by returning control to the communities with technology transfer only when and where they want it, ME

  4. Ken Barrows says:

    I’d love to see a net energy analysis. I suspect none is forthcoming.

  5. Pangolin says:

    This is my response exactly. What is the cost of equipment required to feed one person? How does this cost compare to providing a complete varied diet with traditional agricultural methods?

    You’ll never see numbers on this because they’re surely prohibitive. Like the fantasies of floating arcologies and flying cars the numbers simply don’t add up.

    At best, this is a way of producing fresh supplements to a grain based diet. It can’t possibly feed the populations of desert areas like North Africa.

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    I like the idea that the prototype developers are being forced to confront a few real limitations.

    The prototype developers need to work with salt water, which is a common raw material in many arid lands. They’re being asked to grow algae in salt water.

    They need to grow desert trees, which in fact will grow in certain moister desert microclimates when they aren’t stripped bare by herded goats. The Sahara used to be grassland 9,000 years ago, when the world’s temperature was the same as now, and one way to fight climate change is by planting tough species of trees in half-moon water-collecting holes at the edges of deserts.

    Humidity and coolness are important factors. A desert is naturally cold at night, and the greenhouses need to balance desert daytime heat with desert nighttime coolness.

    With too many American scale-up demonstrations we all know that the large-scale system will be exactly like the smaller system. That could be a problem in Dubai.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Growing food in the desert: is this the solution to the world’s food crisis?
    Philipp Saumweber is creating a miracle in the barren Australian outback, growing tonnes of fresh food. So why has he fallen out with the pioneering environmentalist who invented the revolutionary system?

  8. Cactusdan says:

    Anyone who would like to see how you restore these massively degraded landscapes should watch theses two videos:

    1. Greening the Desert by Geoff Lawton (~5:30)

    2. Green Gold by John D. Liu (~45:00)

    Green Gold is my favorite of the two and way worth the time. Both have great examples of how reclaiming degraded land can bring about amazing results for all matters of life.

  9. Cheng Chin Hsien says:

    Interesting idea, though doing things against the Nature is usually the most difficult and least efficient way.

    Dubai can grow foods and trees, simply becuz they have a lot of fossil fuel energy to turn seawater into freshwater.

    The project is technically feasible, but I guess that such a big scale projects can only feed a few people there.

    Anyway, it may be good project for keeping some people survived. However, for severe warming future with too high a wet-bulb temperature, it will become even more difficult to survive there.

  10. John McCormick says:

    It is not meant to feed the North African population. It is a rich man’s toy. Reminds me of that many million dollar survival capsule built in Arizona that poisoned itself.

  11. Carol says:

    This hideous picture (replete with a two shrubs, a hideous road/ trucks ringing the “plant” and a few humans wandering about) is a heartbreaking example of how far removed homo sapiens are from the path of reverence for and unity with the earth and all its inhabitants (are there bees/hummingbirds in this sterile, anthropocentric techno greenhouse?)
    Whatever the “net energy analysis” is . . I would not want to live in such a world.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    Water (or lack of it) could doom feasibility here. When you convert salt water into fresh via evaporative technology, there is a big cost in equipment wear. Salt will accumulate on steel or other surfaces, and removing it is a big issue. I’d like to see details, including cost.

  13. Daniel Coffey says:

    I would like to see deployment of the most effective solar PV, the Soitec triple-junction tracking PV, in order to produce electricity. Low efficiency or passive PV, while very useful, does not fully exploit the energy available in sunlight to the extent that multiple-junction PV does.

    Also, wind power might be interesting, though I am very curious how such devices with moving parts will fare in a dusty environment.

    For those who comment that such technology has inherent limitations, they are correct, but the short process-train and enduring-resource aspects make up for much of that issue. While sunlight and wind are not abundant in unlimited amounts in any given place, they are enduring over the long haul.

    Note that fossil fuels are one-time-use, never to be replaced, and lose a great deal of energy in the transformation processes from fuel to energy. They are neither enduring or available unlimited amounts. The energy source for solar, wind, geothermal tend to be far more stable and long-lived.

    The most important aspect of this endeavor is the use of current energy sources to fashion tools to exploit new energy sources. We are building on the shoulders of those who came before.

  14. Daniel Coffey says:

    You already live in such a world. Do you imagine that cities such as Los Angeles, Denver, SF, New York or San Diego, not to mention small towns everywhere, are functioning without managed systems such as electricity, water pipes and pumps, gas lines, sewage and associated pipes and pumps, buildings and various structures to protect against sunlight, cold and the like.

    We should appreciate that we need to increase useful habitat for the wild world, not just leave it to ordinary chance and fate to fashion accidents which appear somehow “natural.” What is a bird house if not a contrived affair – one for which the bird expresses its appreciation by bringing forth another generation?

    The current idyllic notion of the wild is an entire illusion. The “wild” has not existed in most places for centuries. Take a look at the accounts of what the Spanish encountered in the 1400’s in the land now occupied by the US, Canada and Mexico. Specifically read the 1602-03 diaries of Sabastian Vizciano – and the agricultural practices and masses of people who lived in what we call the desert Southwest.

  15. Daniel Coffey says:

    Plastics and coatings are very helpful in this regard. I am fairly sure that the people involved are relatively sophisticated and knowledgeable. Chemical engineers and material science folks are pretty good at figuring these things out.

  16. Daniel Coffey says:

    For those who think that biofuel from algae is a good idea, I point you to a piece I wrote after attending a large conference on the topic. I asked two questions: two that really matter.

    Basic energy analysis suggests that solar PV is many times more effective at extracting energy from sunlight than is photosynthesis, especially if the objective is to produce electricity. The sole advantage algae provides is modestly convenient storage, but even that is an interesting question when effective energy density is considered.

  17. GeaVox says:

    I proposed writing about this precise scenario as an Undergraduate free paper, in 1998: saltpetre piped to solar distillation and then to H2 evolution using solar photovoltaics and storage in hydrides, to transport to refuelling station, for use in H2 Fuel Cells…. but my supervisor told me we didn’t deal in science fiction!

  18. GeaVox says:

    That should read “solar” NOT saltpetre.. damned spellchecking!

  19. GeaVox says:

    Energy Plant that requires little human interaction are low cost, wages being one of the largest costs in any industry, and if it reduces oil dependency, what’s to not like?

  20. GeaVox says:

    I guess a better option is to use clay pipes, cheap and abundant material that heats well in sunlight, speeding up evaporation without the corrosion issues of metals. They can be produced in sections, embodying far less energy, as clay is baked at far lower temperatures than those required to extract or recycle metals.

  21. I think there is too much negativity in these comments, folks.

    This is an experiment in combining existing technologies to produce what could be desirable products in an environmentally impoverished region. It’s not a plan to “feed the world.” No one is planning to make anyone live inside of it. And yes, it’s expensive. So was the first light bulb and the first solar PV panel.

    That said, it would be good if Qatar could also invest in desert ecosystem restoration (perhaps it is). There are models from Israel and elsewhere. Perhaps some of the technology developed in this experimental plant could be linked with restoration initiatives.

    Meanwhile, I see nothing wrong with trying to combine restorative technologies to produce desirable products without carbon emissions. Medium tech. That’s what “living machines” are, and they are certainly beneficial.

  22. Yesterday I went to a conference and listened to one of the lead authors of the IPCC climate reports talk about about how The American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest professional association of scientists studying climate was going to hold a special conference in San Francisco to try and figure out how to get the public and politicians to understand how really desperate the situation is. We are, he said, befuddled, by what we see as the willful ignorance of policy makers. We don’t understand why our alarms have so little effect.

    But what really caught my attention was this: We could make the transition from a carbon based energy system to a non-carbon based system for about two per cent of the American GNP. When I talked with him I pointed out that we now spend each year about 17 per cent of our GNP on the illness profit system. So, if what he was saying was accurate that if we could achieve approximately a 12 per cent reduction in healthcare costs we could pay for the whole energy transition, and it wouldn’t actually cost anything more than we are paying now. Inasmuch as the French pay 11 per cent of their GNP to have the best healthcare in the world, and we pay 17 per cent to get the 37th worst healthcare, it is clear that the only thing stopping the transition is the corruption of our Congress, and the greed of the Uber-rich and the corporations they control. That is an astounding insight. At least it was for me. And this report, gives an example of how it could be done.

    Nothing is going to save us but ourselves. If you value your children’s and grandchildren’s lives you better start working and organizing your friends to make your voice heard through voting.

    The Red value states are not going to wake up to the coming disaster in time, so the Blue value states have to overwhelm them, by changing election financing laws, and voting for social progressives with enough integrity and guts to see this change through.

    The alternative is the end of world as we now know it.

  23. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Promising technology in desert regions.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  24. Pangolin says:

    None of the component parts are “in development” like early light bulbs or solar panels. Greenhouse plastics, PVC piping, pumps, electrical wiring, fans and evaporative cooling meshes are all bog standard and produced at close to minimum theoretical energy cost.

    So maybe they save 50% on the solar panels. That’s not going to drastically change the EROEI. The EROEI number is really the only number that matters in the long run. If it’s too far negative fold it up. Dumping cash on the project only furthers the waste.

  25. Allan Savory earned an invitation to give a full-length TED talk with this talk, which addresses the article’s quoted objection to forests where there were none.

  26. Jon Seward says:

    Interesting project, with great potential. However, much of this seems to be extremely similar to work the John Todd did, and which was pioneered by the New Alchemy Institute nearly forty years ago. This project seems to have a number of duplicative elements, and there may be easier and simpler ways to have the pieces work together in a more productive and durable manner. Todd’s work used some simple solar stills, and found that tree planting at scale caused some rapid and profound improvements in local microclimates. I believe there’s also a permaculture project in the Mideast that is also having some great success with very simple approaches.