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Solar panels used to grow plants in the desert

A research team led by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia has recently created a solar-driven system that could successfully grow spinach by using water drawn from the air while producing electricity. This proof-of-concept design offers a sustainable, low-cost strategy to improve food and water security for people living in regions with dry, hot climates.

“A fraction of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to clean water or green power, and many of them live in rural areas with arid or semi-arid climate,” said study senior author Peng Wang, a professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at KAUST. “Our design makes water out of air using clean energy that would’ve been wasted and is suitable for decentralized, small-scale farms in remote places like deserts and oceanic islands.”

The system constructed by Professor Wang and his team – called WEC2P – is composed of a solar photovoltaic panel placed over a layer of hydrogel, which is mounted on top of a large metal box used to condense and collect water. The hydrogel can effectively absorb water vapors from the air and release the water content when heated.

The scientists conducted a plant-growing test by using this solar-powered system in Saudi Arabia for two weeks in June, when the weather was extremely hot. They managed to use the water solely collected from air to irrigate 60 water spinach seeds planted in a plastic box. The results were impressive: 57 out of 60 seeds sprouted and grew normally up to 18 centimeters.

“Our goal is to create an integrated system of clean energy, water, and food production, especially the water-creation part in our design, which sets us apart from current agrophotovoltaics,” said Dr. Wang. In order to do this, he plans to design a better hydrogel that could absorb more water from the air.

“Making sure everyone on Earth has access to clean water and affordable clean energy is part of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. I hope our design can be a decentralized power and water system to light homes and water crops,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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