Bill Watts. Photo Credit: The Sahara Forest Project
When British engineer Bill Watts and his team first brought the idea of using sunlight, seawater, and not much else, to convert some of the world’s most barren places – like North Africa and the Middle East – into lush fruit and vegetable farms to the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, they rejected it as impossible.
But after years of relentless pursuing the project, the Sahara Forest Project team has secured an agreement with the governments of Qatar and Norway to build a test pilot in the Qatari desert, with Watts handling the project’s technical facets and delivery.
The technology the project utilises is extraordinary. Seawater is drawn from the coast and brought to the project location where it is separated for two different uses.
The first batch of water is poured into a concentrated solar power plant, where heat to boil the water is produced by mirrors harnessing the sunlight, and the resultant steam would be used to power the turbines.
The other batch of water is sent down corrugated cardboard walls flanking the greenhouses Watts and his team built in the desert. The water evaporation cools the environment within the walls of the greenhouses, keeping the plants in there cool despite the raging temperatures that frequently hit 50 degrees Celsius and beyond. The water vapour from the evaporation process will then condense on the roof due to the temperatures outside, and produce freshwater, that will then be used to irrigate the crops.
However, the Qatari funders have no interesting in keeping the project running beyond the one-year pilot trial, though no clear reason has been given for their reluctance.