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25/09/2018 – Sustainability / Innovation /  Sahara Forest Project

Sahara Forest Project: Greening the world's deserts


As we rapidly move beyond the Earth’s ability to sustain its growing population, with the shrinking availability of arable land, fuel and fresh water for irrigation, such an existential scenario demands innovative, inter-linked solutions. Sahara Forest Project AS (SFP) is leading the way with its revolutionary approach to ‘greening’ inhospitable desert land using its simple formula – seawater, sunlight and sand. Mr Joakim Hauge, the venture’s President, provides some insight into these groundbreaking techniques. James Midgley reports.


In 1779 the scholar Thomas Malthus offered the world these rather unsettling words regarding famine: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Accordingly, a ‘Malthusian catastrophe’ envisions a forced return to subsistence-level conditions in the wake of agriculture’s inability to keep pace with population growth.


Staving off such a scenario will require no shortage of innovation – and Sahara Forest Project has that in buckets, with its team having recently celebrated the completion and commencement of operations in Jordan. “The Sahara Forest Project has now started delivering clean solar power to the Jordanian grid and selling fresh vegetables to local consumers in Aqaba,” commented Mr Hauge, who welcomed high-ranking officials to the three-hectare site for the occasion earlier this year.


The facility is the second such undertaking for sustainability mavericks at SFP – the first project being in Qatar. The Norwegian firm is taking huge strides in turning desiccated desert lands into viable agricultural sites through its interlinked innovations, as the President explained. “The food-energy-nexus is closely connected to climate change, and in order to address these challenges, we believe you need to take an integrated approach,” he said, adding that the project in Jordan is capable of supplying roughly 130,000kg of vegetables per year – yields that rival traditional farming. 


Trouble on the horizon


According to a 2015 revision of figures from the UN, the world’s population is expected to brush up against 10 billion by 2050. Since the earliest days of agriculture, farming techniques have been a great enabler of satisfying the demands civilisation makes of bringing large quantities of people together in fixed locations. In the last hundred years, however, innovations in agriculture have been increasingly hard-pressed to keep up with demand – current methods are simply inadequate in the face of limited global resources and ever more mouths to feed.


Even with greater efficiency than ever before, our modern farming techniques may soon be coming up against a ceiling. “If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock,” writes renowned sociobiologist Dr E. O. Wilson in his book The Future of Life, “the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land would support about 10 billion people.” The chances of that coming to pass are, of course, nil.


At the same time, that valuable fertile land is under threat. Loss of vegetation from drought, climatic shifts, deforestation, topsoil erosion and even agriculture itself has led to intensifying desertification throughout much of the globe. Some studies suggest that Africa has lost as much as 650,000 km2 of its arable land in the last 50 years, with deterioration especially prevalent along the Sahel belt that marks the edge of the Sahara. With around 41 per cent of the planet’s land classified as drylands at danger of degradation (and also home to over two billion people), a solution maximising the productivity of such otherwise unfertile land is sorely needed – and that is precisely what SFP has set about delivering. 


“It is our belief that, in order to solve these global challenges, integrated solutions must be developed,” Mr Hauge noted. “The objective of Sahara Forest Project is to address the predominant issues of food, water and energy supply, while addressing the challenges presented by global warming. We seek to achieve this through a very simple philosophy – we want to use the resources that we have enough of – such as salt water, sunlight and CO2 – to sustainably produce more of what we need: food, water and renewable energies.”  


Crisis brings opportunity


Nearly a decade has passed since SFP first began the work that led to the inauguration of its first facility in southern Qatar. “We launched the first studies of Sahara Forest Project at the UN Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009,” the organisation’s President recounted. “There were high hopes for those negotiations, with a number of key environmental issues to be addressed. Of all 

the projects discussed, ours was one that stood out and proved that for every challenge, and for every crisis, there is also strong opportunity.”


In order to make its innovative ideas a reality, in 2011 SFP entered into co-operation with two agricultural heavyweights – Yara International ASA, the world’s largest fertiliser supplier, and the Qatari firm Qafco, the world’s largest single-site urea and ammonia producer. A comprehensive feasibility study laid the groundwork for what would be the first fully operational pilot plant, located on a 10,000 m2 plot in the industrial city of Mesaieed. 


“At the start of the project, we were very conscious that a lot of people proposed single solutions addressing one issue at a time – be it water shortage, desertification, climate change,” recalled British architect Michael Pawlyn – one of SFP’s founding members. “We were very keen to develop integrated solutions that address multiple challenges simultaneously.”


Those integrated solutions are echoed in the project’s deceptively simple and interlinked technologies – a combination of seawater infrastructure and solar power. Water is brought inland to the low-lying facility and used to cool the site’s greenhouses and solar power units. Re-condensed water can thereafter be used for irrigation.


“Our primary objective is to take the waste product from each of those technologies and use them as a resource for the other,” Mr Hauge noted. “By allowing each technology to work in tandem, our aim is to increase efficiency and optimise the commercial viability of crops in desert areas.” The Qatari facility yielded its first cucumbers in November 2012 – a bounty the firm served to visitors and workers at a celebratory event. 


Interlinked technologies


SFP’s solution, which approaches a kind of biomimetic ecosystem to itself, has since been rolled out at sites in Tunisia and Jordan. The technologies work almost seamlessly to form something approaching a closed-loop system – one that puts sustainability in an otherwise harsh climate at the forefront. The method relies on three main systems – saltwater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power generation (CSP), and a collection of technologies aimed at re-vegetating desert environments.


Thanks to the cooling power of salt-water pumped inexpensively to the low-lying sites, SFP’s greenhouses provide suitable growing conditions year-round – no mean feat in regions that can reach temperatures beyond 50ºC. Evaporation provides cool air which is supplied underneath the plants via polythene ducts, distributing it evenly along the greenhouse. As the air heats up, it rises and is expelled through higher openings. 


Rather than resource-intensive cooling towers, the CSP process is actively cooled by its connection with the greenhouses. Evaporator pads and fans bring waste heat into an EFTE membrane in the greenhouse roofs. There it can be used to evaporate saltwater and, at night, the water is re-condensed to make it suitable for irrigation. Thanks to this, the water usage is around half that of commercial greenhousing.


However, the technology brings sustainable farming to the open desert air as well. Water exiting the greenhouses has a concentration of about 15 per cent salinity; this brine is passed over external vertical evaporators to create sheltered humid environments. This even means that various outdoor crops – barley, rocket, fodder crops and desert-dwelling vegetation – can thrive, immured within these evaporative seawater fences.


The synergy of those processes effectively sequesters CO2 in the plants and soils and pushes back against the tide of desertification. External growing areas help to reduce dust in the air, further bolstering the efficiency of the CSP generation. Moreover, the Qatari pilot plant included a 50-cubic-metre algae test facility, enabling commercial-scale research on cultivation for nutriceuticals, biofuels and fodder. During the project, SFP discovered a hitherto undocumented strain – fast-growing and with great resilience to heat and salinity. Breakthroughs such as this underscore the enormous value the firm’s projects have in collaboratively developing new knowledge and technologies.


Towards commercial-scale


If the goal in Qatar was to demonstrate how such technologies could work together in inhospitable surroundings, the aim in Jordan is on a decidedly grander scale. “At this size, we will be able to start producing vegetables and products at a level more viable from a business perspective,” explained Mr Hauge. “The long-term goal in Jordan is to make it the first step towards full commercial operations.”


In fact, Qatar proved a near-faultless testbed for the organisation, although the plot’s position within an industrial zone made it unable to expand much further. So it was that the pilot facility was dismantled in 2016 in preparation for its re-establishment in Aqaba, Jordan. At the initiating ceremony in October 2016, EU ambassadors together with Jordanian ministers planted the site’s first tree. Operations commenced in September 2017.


Making the most of the country’s proximity to the Red Sea and the Dead Sea to feed its processes, the three-hectare site produces some 10,000 litres of fresh water each day – water that in turn irrigates two greenhouses (covering 1,350 square metres of growing area) and 3,200 square metres of outdoor planting space. “It’s a starting point for the realisation of large-scale operations both here in Jordan and in other countries,” Mr Hauge observed.


If SFP could build its seawater-cooled greenhouses over an area of eight hectares, it could easily meet all of Qatar’s requirements regarding imports of cucumbers, the firm’s CEO exemplified. “And on an increased scale, with 40 hectares of greenhouse production, SFP could match the yearly import of tomatoes to Qatar. To satisfy the country’s yearly demand for cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines combined, this could be achieved over a 60-hectare greenhouse plot,” he enthused.


While the Jordan project is decidedly smaller in size and output, it is nonetheless a promising step forward. The project has attracted substantial financial contributions from Norway, the EU, the Grieg Foundation, Sundt AS and Yara International, and is part of EU funding of green energy production in Jordan more generally – support that exceeds e160 million. The scale and commercial aims are larger – and so too is the focus on the project’s place in the wider economy as part of what SFP terms the ‘saltwater value chain’. 


“The ambition of Sahara Forest Project is the re-vegetation of desert areas together with contributing to social development through the creation of green jobs,” the interviewee affirmed. “Along with the valuable support of the Jordanian government, this public-private consortium will be a powerful alliance in establishing Aqaba as a regional power house for new ways of using arid landscapes.”


Extensive applications


In preparation for this more business-oriented approach, SFP has more recently divided itself into two dedicated units. On the one hand, Sahara Forest Project AS has strengthened its focus on the realisation of large-scale commercial operations and facilities while, on the other, the non-profit Sahara Forest Project Foundation continues work on the Jordan facility and in developing public-private partnerships. 


Still more projects are just now getting underway. Since 2015, SFP has been working closely with officials in Tunisia to develop a solution tailored to the North African country’s climate and needs – and one that might yet prove another step towards full-scale operations. The venture – projected to cost around US$30 million – entails a cutting-edge agricultural facility comprising the firm’s winning blend of technological marvels. Speaking of the challenge of Tunisia’s deserts, Professor Heribert Hirt – head of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s Desert Agriculture Initiative – advised that such problems are “not dissimilar to doing agriculture on Mars”. Nonetheless, with the new facility scheduled to commence operations later this year, the prospect that SFP’s techniques might someday power extraterrestrial agricultural efforts may perhaps become a little less farfetched. 


More recently still, SFP signed a co-operation agreement for a feasibility study to explore possibilities near the western Australian city of Karratha. The project will see SFP joining forces again with Yara International, along with local and institutional players, to develop innovations suited to the area. “We are not in this to simply build pilot facilities – we are very much focused on going large scale,” Mr Hauge stressed. “With the findings and results that we are realising, we are experiencing great interest for our project in places such as California, Australia and low-lying desert areas with a high degree of sunlight, where a need for increased agricultural production exists.” 


With deserts – defined as any region on Earth that can have a moisture deficit over the course of a year – today covering around one-third of the world’s land surface, the potential scope for development is positively enormous. Moreover, given the severe limitation of resources with which the world is already faced (and which will only be exacerbated as time goes on), solutions such as those pioneered by SFP are simply essential – and in terms of implementation, the sooner the better.

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