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Sahara Solar Project Aims to Power the Planet With Sand

Deserts aren’t just a result of climate change, they can also help stop it. Just ask the University of Tokyo researchers behind the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, an initiative that aims to produce 50 percent of the planet’s electricity by 2050 — by converting sand into solar panels.

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Desertification, or the degradation of land in dry and arid areas, is a nasty byproduct of climate change. But deserts can help our planet too–just ask the University of Tokyo researchers behind the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, an initiative that aims to produce 50 percent of the planet’s electricity using sand by 2050.

The key is silica, a material found in Sahara sand and the raw material for silicon. The initiative leaders imagine that silicon manufacturing plants built throughout the Sahara could turn sand into silicon, which could then be used to manufacture silicon solar panels. Some of the panels could be used to power the manufacturing plants.

There are just a few problems with the project: no one has ever tried to transform desert sand into silicon before, and the team only has a budget of $2 million for the next five years–hardly enough to complete world-changing research, let alone build a series of manufacturing plants. So the team has planned more modest goals for the short term:

While we develop technology for using desert sand to make just one ton of
silicon per year, or actually build just one power plant in the desert,
all sorts of problems, such as sandstorms, will arise. And we will
obtain basic data for solving those problems. Regarding superconductors,
to connect the power supply from the desert to the world, the cables
must be cooled with liquid nitrogen in a tropical climate. So for the
time being, the goal of this research will be to obtain data on issues
such as how deep the superconducting pipeline must be buried to minimize
temperature fluctuations.

This isn’t the only solar-powered project planned for the Sahara. The Desertec Foundation hopes to generate 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050 using solar plants in the region.

 

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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