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Biomimicry in action

Exploration Architecture has completed the first pilot of its Sahara Forest Project

Following a four year development period, Exploration Architecture in collaboration with engineer Bill Watts at Max Fordham and the Bellona Foundation has completed the first pilot facility for the Sahara Forest Project in Qatar. 

Taking 10 months to construct, the 10,000m² facility is aimed at producing food, water and energy in desert areas whilst rectifying desertification caused by global warming.

Exploration Architecture’s interest in halting desertification in the area came about after looking at satellite imagery, which showed that both growth and decline at the boundaries of deserts shifts dramatically. Through establishing new vegetation in a previously barren landscape the scheme not only hopes to halt desertification, but also to offer the potential of storing CO2 in these new plants.

The output from one technology becomes the input for something else in the system

Michael Pawlyn, director of Exploration Architecture described the project as a ‘new paradigm’. He added: ‘Whereas conventional approaches to technology are generally engineered towards maximising one goal, here we are bringing together a range of synergistic technologies in a complex and optimised system. The output from one technology becomes the input for something else in the system so that we move towards a highly productive, zero waste system that runs on current solar income’.

Much of the team’s inspiration came from looking at ecosystems which have adapted to life in the desert. The pilot facility includes seawater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power, photovoltaic power, algae bioreactors, BioRock, halophyte cultivation, external growing areas and salt processing.

A number of key biomimicry features have inspired the project. The Namibian fog-basking beetle, which has evolved a way of harvesting its own fresh water in a desert, was important in developing the design of the seawater-cooled greenhouse. These greenhouses essentially mimic and enhance the conditions in which this beetle harvests water.

A concentrated solar power trough at the pilot facility

A concentrated solar power trough at the pilot facility

The core biomimicry principle on the scheme was the combining of two proven technologies; concentrated solar power and seawater-cooled greenhouses. There are many synergies between these two ideas, including:

  • Both work well in hot, sunny deserts
  • Concentrated solar power requires a supply of demineralised water to keep the mirrors clean and to run the turbines
  • Concentrated solar power provides an excess of waste heat which can be used to evaporate the seawater in the greenhouses
  • The concentrated solar panel mirrors can provide shade to the greenhouses

The pilot facility will run throughout 2013 and data will be gathered on the various technologies used.

The team has also been working on feasibility studies for a desert site in Jordan, where they will construct an initial 20,000m² innovation hub to test the viability of a similar project there.

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