In 2011 The Sahara Forest Project AS entered into cooperation with Yara ASA, the world’s largest supplier of fertilizer and the Qatari company Qafco, the world’s largest single site producer of urea and ammonia. After successfully completing a comprehensive feasibility study on Qatar, the parties signed an agreement to build the first fully operational Sahara Forest Project Pilot Plant in Qatar. The agreement was signed in February 2012 with H.E. Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg and H.E. Prime Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani presiding over the signing.
After an intense construction period The Sahara Forest Project Facility became operational in December 2012. The Sahara Forest Project pilot facility in Qatar provides a unique research platform to demonstrate and optimize environmental technologies that will enable restorative growth in desert areas around the world.
The work done at the Qatar pilot by Yara, Qafco, the SFP research staff, and by members of a large international network of scientific collaborators, will lay sound scientific foundations for bringing restorative growth to Qatar and to deserts around the world.
A strikingly simple interface replaces the water-thirsty cooling towers of a typical CSP plant with a saltwater cooling system that utilizes greenhouse roofs to dissipate the waste heat from the CSP process. At the Pilot Facility, SFP demonstrates an innovative greenhouse-CSP cooling system, which enables the low-cost use of saltwater to achieve wet-cooling efficiencies without utilizing precious freshwater resources.
The heat from the CSP mirrors is used to drive a multistage evaporative desalination system for production of distilled water for the plants in the greenhouse and outside. The waste heat is used to warm the greenhouses in the winter and to regenerate the desiccant used for dehumidifying the air.
The SFP Pilot Facility is home to the first fully operational CSP unit in Qatar. It is used to measure the performance of CSP collectors in Qatari conditions, providing vital information for future larger scale solar power facilities. So too is the Pilot providing the first testing ground to examine the impacts of co-locating CSP collectors with revegetated areas, in which plants and humidifying hedges can reduce the dust levels in the air. This can in turn increase the performance of solar energy systems, and partially protect the valuable CSP mirrors from harsh desert winds.
Saltwater-cooled greenhouses provide suitable growing conditions that enable year-round cultivation of high-value vegetable crops in the harsh Qatari desert. The greenhouse-structure consists of 3 bays to allow for comparisons of performances between ETFE and polythene roof coverings on the horticultural yield. The cooling system is an evaporative cooler at one end of the greenhouse. The cool air is supplied under the plants via polythene ducts to ensure that the cool air is distributed evenly along the greenhouse and at low level. As the air heats up it rises and is expelled via high level openings in the end wall.
The middle bay has a twin skin ETFE membrane roof that forms a void over the greenhouse. This is linked to an evaporator pad and fan that can use the waste heat from the CSP to evaporate seawater or regenerate the desiccant and produce hot moist air. When the air is passed through the void at night it cools and the moisture in the air condense out to give fresh water that can be used for irrigation of the plants.
By using saltwater to provide evaporative cooling and humidification, the crops’ water requirements are minimized and yields maximized with a minimal carbon footprint.
The water coming from the greenhouse is at a concentration of about 15% salinity. To reduce the water content further, the brine is passed over external vertical evaporators set out in an array to create sheltered and humid environments. These areas are planted to take advantage of the beneficial growing conditions for food and fodder crops and for a wide range of desert species. New candidate species for use as harvested and grazing fodder for livestock, and as bioenergy feedstock, is identified and characterized from among native desert plants. The carbon sequestration benefits of various planting and cropping approaches are measured and compared.
The Pilot Plant is supported by state of the art PV-technology. Dust arresting from the surrounding vegetation and water for cleaning the PV-panels ensure an efficient electricity generation.
As the water is evaporated from saltwater the salinity increases to the point that the salts precipitate out from the brine. The last stage of this process is taking place in conventional evaporation ponds.
Beyond traditional horticulture and agriculture, halophytes – salt-loving plant species – are cultivated in saltwater. These hardy plants, often already well adapted to desert conditions, are highly promising sources of fodder and bioenergy feedstocks that can thrive in highly saline environments. However, irrigating with saltwater directly into the soil can cause significant environmental harm. The Qatar Pilot Facility is implementing and testing a variety of novel cultivation techniques to allow low-cost halophyte cultivation while ensuring no saltwater enters surrounding soil or groundwater aquifers
A state-of-the-art 50 m3 algae test facility – the only of its kind in Qatar and the larger region – enables commercial-scale research on the cultivation of marine algae species native to the Gulf and Red Sea for use as nutriceuticals, biofuels, and as animal and fish fodder. New synergies with the SFP saltwater-greenhouse infrastructure, mariculture operations, and soil remediation methods are optimized, while cutting-edge research in cultivation and harvesting methods is carried by SFP staff and its team of international collaborators.