Engineering desert agriculture comes to fruition Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Unlikely collaborators on clever engineering in a hot climate, Norway, Jordan and English engineering firm Max Fordam, are starting to see their plans for agriculture in the desert come to fruition.

With 70% of Australia classified as semi-arid or arid, the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) will be of special interest to agricultural and environmental engineers in this country. The project also incorporates smart technologies in the fields of solar power, desalinisation, geoengineering and thermodynamics.

A recent ceremony at the SFP launch station in Jordan marked its official opening after it began as a year-long pilot project in 2012. The first stage of the project is aiming to produce up to 120 tonnes of organic vegetables per year from just seven acres of previously unusable land. The full scale of the project will take the land area up to 490 acres in coming years.

Environmental engineers at Max Fordham have been collaborating with the SFP since its inception in 2008. Initially research into the technical aspects of the project were carried out. These included thermodynamic analysis of the greenhouse (to provide optimum growing conditions for crops with minimum resource input), desalination techniques, and potential climatic effects of adding moisture to desert air.

Tom Bentham, a mechanical engineer and senior partner at Max Fordham, said SFP is one of the “most technically complex and satisfying projects” he has ever worked on, but it was challenging nonetheless.

“The salt water and desert environments are both testing on their own; when put together they create one of the harshest environments there is for engineering components,” Bentham said.

Max Fordham’s research included building and operating an experimental rig in the Qatari desert, to verify conclusions in the field. This culminated in the development of a mathematical computer model of the entire SFP system, which the engineers and the SFP team used to investigate resource flows through the system and project investment costs and returns.

The second stage was focused on the engineering design of the SFP system, first for the pilot project five years ago and more recently for the launch station in Jordan.

The Max Fordham engineers designed the saltwater cooling system for the greenhouse as well as the services infrastructure which joins up and enables the different energy and growing technologies that comprise the SFP system. For this, they collaborated with experts on solar power, greenhouse operation and desalination. The English firm then provided site engineers during the construction and operation of the Qatar pilot project to help local engineers who were building it to understand the system and adapt the design during its life to overcome unforeseen challenges.

Ultimately, the Sahara Forest Project is tackling five global problems: the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; increase of fresh water supply; supporting transition from fossil fuels; development of sustainable food production; and growing biomass or renewable energy.