Green fields by the Red Sea

Paul Raven @ 24-01-2011

Via BigThink, Discovery reports on an ambitious plan to bring life to the arid deserts of Jordan by using seawater and solar greenhouses:

A structure, called a seawater greenhouse, will capitalize on the abundance of sun in Jordan and use it to evaporate seawater and condense it into fresh water. While this happens, a naturally cool and humid environment will be created — perfect for growing crops.

Energy to run the facility will come from a concentrated solar power plant, which will use mirrors to focus sunlight onto pipes of fluid. The super-heated fluid boils and the steam is captured to drive a turbine generator, which produces electricity.

Though arid coastal locations are ideal, a forest project could still be used further inland. Several arid areas in the Sarhara are below sea level, making it relatively inexpensive to deliver water to the facility without costly pumping fees. The Qattara Depression in Egypt, for example, is about 435 feet below sea level — a drop that could be exploited for hydro-electric power, too.

The open question is always going to be cost, but the ambitiously-named Sahara Forest Project apparently already has approval from Jordan’s government, and reckon they could be operating at commercial levels by 2015. That’d be a sight to see, no?

Welcome to Mock Mars, Utah

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Reminiscent of the gang-in-a-can experiment in Russia (I wonder how that worked out in the end?), Wired UK reports briefly on six aspiring Mars missioneers (missionaries?) living in a cylindrical habitat out in the Utah desert to simulate the trials of daily human existence on the surface of the Red Planet, should we ever make it there. There’s another “Mars Analag Research Station” (see what they did there?) in the Canadian Arctic, and the Mars Society – unwilling to wait for beleaguered nation-state space budgets to recover sufficiently (if ever) to send out a manned mission – has plans for another in Iceland.

It strikes me that the obvious flaw with the MARS set-ups and the Russian mission sim linked above is that the participants know that it’s a sim; clomping around in spacesuits and eating spacesnax is all well and good, but if you know that you can remove the helmet or open the hatch in an emergency, you’re not really stress-testing the psychological issues properly. Ballard thought it through (of course), in a short story whose name I am presently unable to recall (or locate in a book, as my Collected Short Stories appears to be on vacation somewhere other than my bookshelves at present); anyone remember the one I’m thinking of? It featured a small (fake) generation ship rather than a Mars station, but the whole cabin-fever psychology thing felt spot-on during a recent re-read (no Suck Fairy damage in that one, though not all of Ballard’s early short stuff fares quite so well)…

Bonus content! Talking of Ballard and space, how’d you fancy seeing some Cold War dreams of space dominion decaying in a post-Soviet junkyard [via SlashDot]? How the mighty have fallen… but before you get too hubristic, that’s not far from the fate the Space Shuttles will suffer as museum pieces. Yesterday’s technological marvels and dream-vehicles are today’s salvage-hunt relics; this is something we’d all do well to remember, but will probably all forget.

Frank Herbert’s Fremen moisture traps made real

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2009

man walking on desert dunesChalk up another point for Frank Herbert; the moisture traps used by his Fremen characters in the Dune series to extract drinkable water from an otherwise bone-dry desert are a technological reality.

Research scientists […] have found a way of converting this air humidity autonomously and decentrally into drinkable water. “The process we have developed is based exclusively on renewable energy sources such as thermal solar collectors and photovoltaic cells, which makes this method completely energy-autonomous. It will therefore function in regions where there is no electrical infrastructure,” says Siegfried Egner, head of department at the IGB. The principle of the process is as follows: hygroscopic brine – saline solution which absorbs moisture – runs down a tower-shaped unit and absorbs water from the air. It is then sucked into a tank a few meters off the ground in which a vacuum prevails. Energy from solar collectors heats up the brine, which is diluted by the water it has absorbed.

Because of the vacuum, the boiling point of the liquid is lower than it would be under normal atmospheric pressure. This effect is known from the mountains: as the atmospheric pressure there is lower than in the valley, water boils at temperatures distinctly below 100 degrees Celsius. The evaporated, non-saline water is condensed and runs down through a completely filled tube in a controlled manner. The gravity of this water column continuously produces the vacuum and so a vacuum pump is not needed. The reconcentrated brine runs down the tower surface again to absorb moisture from the air.

Crafty stuff… and if climate change brings the increased desertification that some suggest it will, there’ll be a lot of people in need of technology just like this. [via SlashDot; image by Gret@Lorenz]

On a similar note, here’s an architectural concept that uses a similar process to extract potable water from air humidity on hot sunny coastlines

Rewriting Dune – arenaceous antidesertification architecture

Paul Raven @ 21-04-2009

I’ve mentioned before that everyone should follow Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, and this post pretty much sums up why; Manaugh manages to find the weirdest and most wonderful ideas from the fringes of architecture and interprets them with the mind of a life-long science fiction fan.

Sometimes, however, it doesn’t take him much interpretation or extrapolation to get straight into sensawunda territory, and Magnus Larsson’s “arenaceous antidesertification architecture” is a prime example. Take it away, Mr Manaugh:

Larsson’s project deservedly won first prize last fall at the Holcim Foundation’s Awards for Sustainable Construction held in Marrakech, Morocco. One of the most interesting aspects of the project, I think, is that this solidified dunescape is created through a particularly novel form of “sustainable construction” – that is, through a kind of infection of the earth.

Larsson has proposed using bacillus pasteurii, a “microorganism, readily available in marshes and wetlands, [that] solidifies loose sand into sandstone,” he explains.


But the idea of taking this research and applying it on a megascale – that is, to a 6,000km stretch of the Sahara Desert – boggles the mind. At the very least, the idea that this might be deployed for the wrong reasons, or by the wrong people, in some delirious hybrid of ice-nine, J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World, and perhaps a Roger Moore-era James Bond film, deserves further thought.

Indeed it does… but take a look at the concept art for the project (of which there is more in a Flickr set). Even before you start thinking about potential misuse, you can’t help but be impressed by the sf-nal visual impact of the idea.

arenaceous antidesertification architecture concept

You’d be best off reading the whole of the BLDGBLOG post for the low-down on how this concept would work (and then Larsson’s paper itself, from which the above image is borrowed), but here’s an excerpted explanation from Larsson himself:

The piles would be pushed through the dune surface and a first layer of bacteria spread out, solidifying an initial surface within the dune. They would then be pulled up, creating almost any conceivable (structurally sound) surface along their way, with the loose sand acting as a jig before being excavated to create the necessary voids. If we allow ourselves to dream, we could even fantasise about ways in which the wind could do a lot of this work for us: solidifying parts of the surface to force the grains of sand to align in certain patterns, certain shapes, having the wind blow out our voids, creating a structure that would change and change again over the course of a decade, a century, a millenium.

Beautiful? Undoubtedly. Practical or plausible? I really have no idea… but I don’t think there’s any harm in admiring a magnificent idea for its own sake every once in a while. After all, that’s one of the pillars of science fiction, isn’t it?