Scientist wants to solve energy crisis with Saharan sand

An initiative by universities in Japan and Algeria aims to provide half of the world’s energy before 2050 by “breeding” solar panel plants in the Sahara desert.

The idea behind it all is to combine the two most abundant things you would find in the Sahara desert, namely sun and sand, by firstly building a handful of silicon manufacturing plants which could then use the plentiful sand to create high-quality silicon used in solar panels. 

The energy generated by the solar panels would then be used to build the next generation of plants and solar panel.  These would then repeat the cycle by “breeding” even more cute little baby silicon power plants, and so on and so forth.

Although no one has actually attempted to make silicon from the rough sands of the Sahara, Hidemi Koinuma from the University of Tokyo believes that it is merely common-sense.

“From the viewpoints of quality, quantity and chemistry, Sahara sand is hard to beat for use as silicon for solar cells,” he says.

According to the New Scientist this is not the first attempt to turn the Sahara into a giant solar panel, with the Desertec Foundation also planning to pick up around 15 percent of Europe’s ‘leccy bill, though is the first initiative to use the surrounding sand to sustain development.

However Desertec believes that the idea may be a tad difficult to pull off in reality, although it is a step in the right direction.  The ‘high-temperature’ superconductors that would be needed to distribute the power as a direct current could cause a problem in fact usually function at the not very high temperature of  -240c, so will need to spend considerable energy to cool them.

“There is not really a need for superconductors. By using high-voltage direct current transmission lines it is possible to transport clean power from the deserts over long distances to centres of consumption,” says a Desertec spokesman. “Transmission losses are fairly low – around 3 per cent per 1000 kilometres. Unlike superconductors, there is no need for cooling, while power transmission costs are just 1¢ to 2¢ per kilowatt-hour.”

Koinuma however believes that there is potential for linking the desert based power stations to a network of supercooled high-voltage DC grid for transporting electricity 500 km or more.

“Even if we need to cool the grid line with liquid nitrogen, the system could be cost-competitive,” he claims.