Climate Crisis: Terraforming the Desert

green_machineNow that I’m back from my European adventure, I finally have the time to catch up on some news stories that were breaking earlier in the month. And between posting about said adventure, I thought I might read up and post up on them, since they are all quite interesting to behold. Take, for example, this revolutionary idea that calls for the creation of a rolling city that has one purpose in mind: to replant the deserts of the world.

Desertification is currently one of the greatest threats facing humanity. Every year, more than 75,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) of arable land turns to desert. As deserts spread – a process that is accelerating thanks to climate change and practices like clear-cutting – the UN estimates that more than 1 billion people will be directly affected. Many of them, living in places like Northern Africa and rural China, are already struggling with poverty, so the loss of farmland would be especially hard to handle.

green_machine_balloonsAs a result, scientists are looking to come up with creative solutions to the problem. One such concept is the Green Machine – a floating, self-powered platform that would act as a mobile oasis. Rolling on treads originally designed to move NASA rockets. Designed by Malka Architecture and Yachar Bouhaya Architecture for the Venice Biennial, this mobile city would roam the drylands and plant seeds in an effort to hold back the desert.

The huge platform would be mounted on sixteen caterpillar treads originally made to move NASA rockets, while giant floating balloons that hover from it capture water condensation. As the first treads roll over the soil, the machine uses a little water from the balloons to soften the ground while the last set of treads injects seeds, some fertilizer, and more water. The entire platform would run on renewable power, using a combination of solar towers, wind turbines, and a generator that uses temperature differences in the desert to creates electricity.

green_machine_cityThe machine could theoretically capture enough energy that it can self-support an entire small city onboard, complete with housing, schools, businesses, parks, and more farmland to grow produce for the local area. This city would house and support the many researchers, agronomers, workers and their families that would be needed to oversee the efforts. Similar to what takes place in oil drilling, these individuals could be flown in for periods of work that could last up to sixth weeks at a time before rotating out.

The designers were inspired by Allan Savory, who has proposed a much lower-tech version of the same process that relied on cattle to naturally till and fertilize the soil. For the architects, building on this idea seemed like a natural extension of their work. If the machine went into action at desert borders, the designers say it could help formerly barren soil produce 20 million tons of crops each year, and could even help slow climate change by capturing carbon in soil.

green_machine_terraOver time, biodiversity could also gradually return to the area. The architects are currently working on developing the project on the Moroccan side of the Sahara Desert. As Stephane Malka, founder of Malka Architecture, put it, it’s all about using the neglected parts of the world to plan for humanity’s future:

For a long time, my studio has developed work around neglected spaces of the city. Deserts are the biggest neglected space on Earth, as they represent more than 40% of the terrestrial surface. Building the Green Machine units would be able to re-green half of the desert borders and the meadows of the world, while feeding all of humanity

As to the sheer size of their massive, treaded city, the designers stressed that it was merely an extension of the challenge it is seeking to address. Apparently, if you want to halt a worldwide problem, you need a big-ass, honking machine!


Powered by the Sun: Mirrored Solar Dishes

sun_magneticfieldIn the race to develop alternative energy sources, solar power is the undeniable top contender. In addition to being infinitely renewable So much sunlight hits the Earth each day that the world’s entire electricity needs could be met by harvesting only 2% of the solar energy in the Sahara Desert. Of course, this goal has remained elusive due to the problem of costs – both in the manufacture of solar panels and the installation therefor.

But researchers at IBM think they’re one step closer to making solar universally accessible with a low-cost system that can concentrate the sunlight by 2,000 times. The system uses a dish covered in mirrors to aim sunlight in a small area, and which follows the sun throughout the day to catch the most light. Other concentrated solar power systems do the same thing, but a typical system only converts around 20% of the incoming light to usable energy, while this one can convert 80%.

Inline_solardishThis not only ensures a much larger yield, but also makes the energy it harvests cheap. Bruno Michel, the manager for advanced thermal packaging at IBM Research, believes the design could be three-times cheaper than “comparable” systems. Officially, the estimate he provides claim that the cost per kilowatt hour will work out to less than 10 cents, which works out to 0.01 cents per watt (significantly cheaper than the $0.74 per watt of standard solar).

But as he explains, using simple materials also helps:

The reflective material we use for the mirror facets are similar to that of potato chip bags. The reinforced concrete is also similar to what is being used to build bridges around the world. So outside of the receiver, which contains the photovoltaic chips, we are using standard materials.

A few small high-tech parts will be built in Switzerland (where the prototype is currently being produced). but the main parts of the equipment could easily be built locally, wherever it’s being used. It’s especially well-suited for sunny areas that happen to be dry. As the system runs, it can use excess heat that would normally be wasted to desalinate water. Hence, a large installation could provide not only abundant electricity, but clean drinking water for an entire town.

inline-i-solar-02A combined system of this kind could be an incredible boon to economies in parts of the world that are surrounded by deserts, such as North Africa or Mongolia. But given the increasing risk of worldwide droughts caused by Climate Change, it may also become a necessity in the developed world. Here, such dishes could not only provide clean energy that would reduce our carbon footprint, but also process water for agricultural use, thus combating the problem on two fronts.

IBM researchers are currently working with partners at Airlight Energy, ETH-Zurich, and Interstate University of Applied Sciences Buchs NTB to finish building a large prototype, which they anticipate will be ready by the end of this summer. After testing, they hope to start production at scale within 18 months. Combined with many, many other plans to make panels cheaper and more effective, we can expect to be seeing countless options for solar appearing in the near future.

And if recent years are any indication, we can expect solar usage to double before the year is out.