Biomimicry is behind a scheme to revegetate the Qatari desert, says Michael Pawlyn

I lived in Qatar briefly as a teenager and some of my happiest memories are of snorkelling in coral reefs a short distance from Doha. Going back after a 30 year gap it came as a shock to read on the plane journey out that most, if not all, the coral had died in recent years due to high sea temperatures attributable to climate change. It brought home the urgency of finding how to shift away from fossil fuels. 

Over the last two years I have been a regular visitor to Qatar, working on our Sahara Forest Pilot Project. This has just completed in time for the Doha Climate Change Conference, when ministers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from all over the world will descend on the country.  Our pilot is the culmination of five years’ hard slog (pictured). Commentators on innovation often refer to the process of developing a new idea as ‘crossing the valley of death’ – the arduous journey from concept to commercialisation. We still have some way to go to reach the other side of the valley but to have a full test facility is a huge step forward.

‘Concentrated solar power and seawater-cooled greenhouses create cool, humid growing conditions for crops in arid regions and produce fresh water’

Natural solution

The Sahara Forest Project goes beyond sustainable approaches to achieve a restorative model. It is a cluster of synergistic technologies with the potential to produce zero carbon food in some of the most water-stressed parts of the planet, using renewable energy and building materials while revegetating areas of desert. Biomimicry has been the primary source of innovation – from the fog-basking beetle that harvests its own fresh water in a desert, to seaweed furanones that control bio-fouling, and the whole realm of ecosystems thinking and industrial ecology. The core technologies are concentrated solar power and seawater-cooled greenhouses which create cool, humid growing conditions for crops in arid regions and produce fresh water in a process effectively identical to the beetle. Using seawater (plus solar energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide) offers possibilities for other technologies. The pilot project includes the Middle East’s largest algal biofuel installation and will experiment with halophytes (salt-loving plants) as a way to grow crops in seawater while extracting trace elements to fertilise desert soils. The scheme also incorporates evaporator hedges which help to create good growing conditions for external crops while concentrating brine from the greenhouses ready for evaporating in salt ponds.

The idea took shape in 2007 and early 2008 in response to concerns such as climate change, peak oil and water security, and aimed to address multiple challenges simultaneously. In 2009 we formed a partnership, and subsequently a company, with engineer Bill Watts and The Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian NGO. Its connections to big business, many of which it had run campaigns against while working with them to develop solutions, led to a deal being struck with the international fertiliser company Yara and its joint venture partner the Qatar Fertiliser Company. 

We were commissioned to carry out a feasibility study for the Sahara Forest Project to assess its potential in Qatar. Quite separately, the Norwegian government asked us to carry out feasibility studies in Jordan. While Jordan’s climate makes it one of the best places in the world for our technology, we knew Qatar would be much more challenging because its humidity and solar intensity are far less favourable. But conclusions from the studies were positive enough to proceed with a pilot project in Qatar. 

By coincidence the site we were given for the pilot project turned out to be only a few hundred metres from where my father had worked for Shell. The massively scaled pieces of civil and chemical engineering of an industrial zone holds some engaging contrasts with our project. Conventionally, the systems of the industrial age are linear, disconnected, fossil-fuel based and engineered towards maximising one goal. Our scheme pursues a new biomimetic paradigm that is densely interconnected and symbiotic, solar-driven, cyclical and optimised as a whole system.

‘The Qataris are fully aware of their wealth but rather than ostentatious displays of consumption they are keen to do the right things with their money’

Spending wisely

We have been pleasantly surprised by the sensibility we have found in Qatar. They are fully aware of their wealth but rather than ostentatious displays of consumption they are keen to do the right things with their money. Our project partner QAFCO is interested in the Sahara Forest Project mainly for philanthropic reasons and wants to help develop a positive future for the country.
Building in Qatar has involved a steep learning curve and some difficult working conditions. In summer, the contractor shifted to night-working but even so, my colleague Oliver Bulleid, who has done a lot of the project management, found it difficult to sketch a solution in his notebook on site while sweat was turning the paper back to pulp. Organising logistics and shipping proved to be a major undertaking that our year-out student Niamh Anderson worked on full-time in Qatar for two months, while gaining valuable site experience. We also learnt that contractors in Qatar expect near constant supervision rather than the fortnightly site visit we are used to in Europe.

Now the scheme is complete we are looking forward, with some nervous anticipation, to the first sets of operational data that will tell us how close our theoretical performance predictions are. If the scheme performs as we expect then there is everything to play for – several countries are following our progress and with the Qatar world cup less than 10 years away we know the Qataris are keen to show the world how they will engage with the green agenda. 

Michael Pawlyn is founder of Exploration Architecture