Can solar power bring a waterfall–or even a glacier–to the middle of the Egyptian desert?
For more than two years, Netherlands-based artist Ap Verheggen has been working to prove it’s not an impossible idea. In a climate-controlled lab in The Hague, Verheggen started with the challenge of ice.
He recreated the blistering summer heat and high winds of the Aswan Desert, where temperatures are almost always well above 100 degrees. Using a specialized cooling machine and the technical expertise of a European refrigeration company, he was able to demonstrate that he could grow ice within minutes by pulling water vapor from the air and freezing it.
Now Verheggen wants to take his tech to the actual desert and build a gigantic sculpture to grow ice at a large scale. The SunGlacier is designed to stretch 2,153 square feet over sand dunes, covered in solar panels that would power the machine as it captures vapor from the air (some areas of the desert, surprisingly, have fairly humid air) and turns it into a thick layer of ice under the sculpture.
Why build a glacier? It isn’t that the artist thinks the desert has a desperate need for ice. Instead, he wants to offer proof for his own particular brand of techno-optimism. “It will demonstrate that, with current technology, much can be achieved in response to emerging and urgent threats,” Verheggen said. “It’s a creative way of thinking about adaptation to climate change.”
Along the way, he’s gaining insights about something much more practical: creating and storing drinking water in water-stressed regions like the Middle East. “Making water is not as big of a challenge as making ice,” he explained. “We learned a lot about water, because we had to cross many borders to design the best configuration for this extreme conversion.”
When it’s built in real conditions, Verheggen believes the project will have even more to teach. For now, he’s still looking for someone to foot the bill for construction. As he looks for a partner, he says he’s seen both cooling and solar technology quickly improve, so the potential size and function of the glacier continues to grow.
Verheggen also started working on a second sculpture, building on what he’s learned through research on the first. In the next iteration, a solar cube will power a cascading waterfall.
Both projects, the artist hopes, can help more practical technical experts to think a little differently, just like sci-fi films of the past have provided visions that later turned into actual products. The art can “inspire science to look beyond known horizons and become a type of generator for new possibilities,” Verheggen says.