The Regeneration Game

03/03/2014Filed under:environment / feature / independent

According to recent estimates by the United Nations, the number of humans living on planet Earth by 2050 will rise to nine billion – growth that will inevitably place increased pressure on agriculture. As industry strives to cope with demand, a particularly innovative solution is proposed by Sahara Forest Project – a scheme that promises to meet these rapidly increasing requirements using nothing but seawater, sunlight and a desert plot. Leonard Owen speaks to Mr Joakim Hauge, CEO of Sahara Forest Project AS, for his perspective on the project’s exciting potential.

The 20th century marked agriculture’s most significant technological shift in the 10,000 years since mankind first turned its hand to the herding of cattle and the cultivation of crops. Attributable to agricultural revolution, technological breakthrough and the resulting boost in yields, each development within this industry has grown in tandem with one predominant factor – a surge in global population.

As the world continues to face the challenges of climate change, a scarcity of fossil fuels and increased energy demands, alongside water and land shortage, a scenario has emerged whereby agriculture and food production techniques must further adapt if they are to have any hope of meeting demand and remaining sustainable.

If mouths are to be fed, production of food by 2050 will have to increase by 70 per cent and annual cereal production alone will have to grow by a total of one billion tonnes. As areas of East and North Africa, alongside southern Asia, reach the limits of their total available agricultural land, it seems more urgent than ever that a viable solution must be found. Enter the Sahara Forest Project.

“It is our belief that, in order to solve these global challenges, integrated solutions must be developed,” Mr Hauge indicates. “The objective of Sahara Forest Project is to address the predominant issues of food, water and energy supply, whilst 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 saltwater, sunlight and CO2, and use them to produce more of what we need, to sustainably produce food, water and renewable energies.”

At the core of Sahara Forest Project is a seawater infrastructure, one that combines solar power technologies, evaporative cooling and humidification to promote the revegetation of low-lying dessert terrain and the cultivation of greenhouse crops. Put simply, Sahara Forest Project is realising a commercially viable and sustainable method of food and resource production in geographical areas that were previously considered unviable. In promoting restorative growth within the world’s harshest landscapes, Sahara Forest Project can indeed provide a realistic and entirely new form of solution to meet the demands of growing populations the world over.

Optimising commercial viability

“We launched the first studies of Sahara Forest Project at the UN Climate Negotia-tions in Copenhagen in 2009,” Mr Hauge tells us. “There were high hopes for these 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.”

Gaining a high level of interest for the concept that it proposed, Norwegian-based Sahara Forest Project AS formed collaborative agreements with two of the world’s largest fertiliser companies – Qatar Fertiliser Company (QAFCO) and Norway’s Yara International ASA – to build a pilot facility in Qatar. From this foundation, following a three-year period of feasibility studies, field testing and data modelling, Sahara Forest Project launched the Qatar-based pilot facility in 2012.

Located at Mesaieed Industrial City, southern Qatar, Sahara Forest Project’s pilot scheme provided a unique opportunity to optimise the project’s interlinked environmental technologies – the like of which had never been put together before. Situated over a 10,000 square metre plot, the Qatar pilot project showcased a number of environmental firsts, through the incorporation of three core technologies – water-cooled greenhouses, solar power systems and technologies for desert revegetation. “Our primary objective is to take the waste product from each of these technologies and use them as a resource for the other,” Mr Hauge tells us. “By allowing each technology to work in tandem, our aim is to increase efficiency and optimise the commercial viability of crops in desert areas.”

Seawater strategies

Fundamental to the Sahara Forest Project ecosystem is the sourcing of seawater – a resource that is brought inland and used for the year-round cooling of its greenhouses. As an example, the Qatar pilot facility channels this seawater through honeycombed cardboard pads within the walls of its greenhouses. The seawater is evaporated into the air as solar-powered fans draw hot desert air through the pads and inside. In this way, the greenhouses are cooled by up to 15 degrees – an innovative and valuable technique, considering the region’s summer temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius. The water vapour that is released into the air from the seawater can be condensed onto the greenhouse roof and utilised as water for irrigation for the facility’s crops. In this way, water usage is reduced to around half of that used in commercial greenhousing. “Through these methods, we have realised the successful cultivation of cucumbers with yields comparable to that of leading European greenhouse operations,” Mr Hauge highlights.

Sahara Forest Project has also replicated similar technologies to an external capacity. Surrounding its outdoor crops are evaporative seawater fences, constructed from the same honeycombed design. Much like its greenhouses, these fences provide cooling of up to 10 degrees Celsius, enabling the cultivation of numerous year-round crops such as barley and rocket.

The evaporative qualities of the external fences and greenhouses also serve to cool the plot’s on-site concentrated solar power (CSP) facilities – the first fully operational system of its kind in Qatar. Utilising highly reflective mirrors to concentrate the intense heat of the sun, Sahara Forest Project’s concentrated solar units drive a thermal desalination unit for the production of fresh water for crops all year. The evaporative fences and greenhouses also provide sufficient cooling during the thermal desalination process, thus negating the need for otherwise costly cooling towers. Alongside this process, all excess heat is sourced for the heating of greenhouses during cooler seasons, with all required electricity generated by photovoltaic solar systems. By combining each of its technologies, Sahara Forest Project serves to realise one all-encompassing aim – the revegetation of parts of the world’s desert areas.

Large-scale potential

Where Sahara Forest Project particularly excels is in its capability to bring together not only cutting-edge technologies, but also the collective expertise of systems and scientists. It is in this way that the project has realised an important set of breakthroughs. “Just a couple of months ago, we were able to present the first results from our pilot facility – the first real proof that what we are doing works,” Mr Hauge reports. “We made some extremely encouraging findings that seek to directly benefit Qatar’s food production capacities.”

With Qatar importing over 90 per cent of its food, the findings at the pilot scheme have uncovered the true potential of Sahara Forest Project on a large scale. “If we could build our seawater cooled greenhouses over an area of eight hectares, we could easily meet all of Qatar’s requirements regarding imports of cucumbers,” Mr Hauge reveals. “On an increased scale, with 40 hectares of greenhouse production, Sahara Forest Project 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 adds.

In another ‘first’ for Qatar, Sahara Forest Project operates a state-of-the art algae test facility – one that enables the commercial-scale research of marine algae for nutraceutical, biofuel, and animal feed use. It was here, in the summer of last year, where an unprecedented strain of algae was discovered at Sahara Forest Project’s pilot facility – one with characteristics for fast growth, with high heat and high salt tolerance. With these attributes on-board, the algae has the potential to open new regions of the world to industrial-scale development of next-generation biofuels.

“We are not in this to simply build pilot facilities, we are very much focused on going large scale,” Mr Hauge tells us. “With the findings and results that we are realising, we are experiencing great interest for this project in places such as California, Australia and low-lying desert areas with a high degree of sunlight, where there is a need for increased agricultural production.”

A test of true potential

Having recently completed a set of feasibility studies, Sahara Forest Project is on the verge of its next development. Its studies have prepared for a roll-out in Qatar, alongside the construction of a demonstration centre near Aqaba, Jordan. Serving to demonstrate the economic viability of Sahara Forest Project, this centre will display all the qualities of its pilot project on a much larger scale. Situated over an initial area of 20 hectares, the centre will have the capacity to accommodate an eventual expansion over a total of 200 hectares. As with its pilot scheme, the Jordanian centre will rely on the convergence of seawater technologies, sourced through a pipeline from the Red Sea. More importantly, the Jordan scheme will illustrate the true potential of Sahara Forest Project, in its capacity to yield substantial amounts of food, water and energy, and provide the revegetation of the world’s most arid regions.

If demand is to be met by 2050, arable land will have to expand by 120 million hectares and the world population will require an area the size of Brazil to accommodate its expansive farming requirements. Agriculture and industry will need to produce more food within this time than was produced in the previous 100 centuries combined. “As future challenges force us to find new sources of energy and methods of food production, Sahara Forest Project is ideally positioned to respond to these ever-growing demands,” Mr Hauge enthuses. “Through our expertise and that of major industrial players, these combined forces must act if Sahara Forest Project is to be one of the positive answers that can help address the demands of future populations,” he concludes.