Each Could Now Have The Means To Profitably Farm The Sky 

This Changes Everything

The profitable production and processing of high quality organic food enabling the hitherto poorest communities to thrive is no longer dependent on how we farm the land but how we farm the sky.

This perspective has evolved during a continuing long series of research projects and resulting enterprises to realise the full value of the vast solar resource. It has involved some of Europe's finest sustainability research groups embedded, for instance, within Imperial College and The Fraunhofer Institute.

The project outcomes strongly indicate ways to integrate recent advances across an array of fields to affordably utilise disregarded inexhaustible and recyclable resources in place of each assumed key scarce resource.

For example the integration of just a few of these advances enables communities to thrive even in a desert.

The principal area of advance is in optics by which we may use the full solar resource inexpensively.

When incorporated in the building envelope the energy generated and saved is around 10 times that generated by standard roof-mounted solar panels.* And when combined with recent greenhouse developments, instead of fields with solar panels, even arid land can yield high quality produce with the same amount of electricity available for the local community. In this case the fabric of the greenhouse is a static optical configuration based on the work of Warwick University and demonstrated in an Innovate UK project. It effectively splits the sky into the part in which the sun travels during the year and the rest. Photons from the former are focussed onto efficient PV cells, whereas photons purely from the sky supply the photosynthesis needs of the plants, whilst the interior is shaded from the detrimental effects of direct sunlight.

Parallel developments in solar desalination with the Fraunhofer Institute in an EU project have led to a way of using the cogenerated heat of this translucent PV system to take water out of desert air. When combined with low water use horticulture, enough water can be generated so that a greenhouse complex, without using soil or pesticides, can supply the community with food, water and electricity for its own use and to export to its neighbours. Aeroponics, pioneered by NASA, with its exceptionally high yields and ultra-low water consumption, usually thought not to be cost-effective, is particularly profitable with this approach.

The building envelope thus no longer just protects the interior from the elements outside but also is the means to use those elements for life within to thrive. This will have a number of major consequences.

Firstly the scarce resources of oil, soil and freshwater will lose their importance.

Secondly the sparsely populated areas where land is cheap and sunny will be a good place to earn a much better living from one’s own initiative than the average wage in the Developing World.

Thirdly the benefits of more space for a better quality of life will reverse the seeming inexorable move to urbanisation. And only those who want to live in a town for social and cultural reasons, not just to get a job to survive, will do so.

However of even more importance for our future way of living will be the realisation that the more we help each other better use such inexhaustible resources as sunlight and water in the air, evaporated by the sun from the oceans, the more prosperous we will all become.

* As early as 2006 a paper written for Nature discussed some of these savings along with the generation benefits of high quality PV cells. See 'Resolving the energy crisis: nuclear or photovoltaics?', Nature materials Mar ‘06, K. W. J. BARNHAM, M. MAZZER AND B. CLIVE

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