This is ambition with a capital A. Universities in Japan and Algeria have teamed up on a project that aims to solve the world’s energy problems. Called the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, the plan is to build manufacturing plants around the Sahara Desert and extract silica from sand to make solar panels, which will then be used to build solar power plants in the desert. The power generated by the initial plant or plants would be used to “breed” more silicon manufacturing and solar power plants, which will in turn be used to breed more again, and so on. The ultimate goal is to build enough plants to provide 50 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050, which would be delivered via a global superconducting supergrid.

To turn the world’s biggest desert into the world’s biggest power station the Sahara Solar Breeder Project aims to take advantage of two resources that are found in abundance in the Sahara – silica and sunlight. However, to make such an ambitious plan a reality there are more than a few hurdles that will need to be overcome. For example, there is currently no technology for making silicon from desert sand, then using it to make solar cells. Also, connecting the desert power supply to the world will require cables that must be cooled with liquid nitrogen and placed underground to minimize temperature fluctuations.

Initial research

That is why the project, which is getting underway this year, will initially focus on the development of the basic technology to make the project practical. Specifically, demonstrating the possibility of manufacturing high-purity silicon from desert sand, which is the key to the project, and constructing a high-temperature superconducting, long-distance, DC power supply system. With the initial aim of producing a 100 kW solar cell in 2011, the project ultimately aims to achieve a solar plant with an annual capacity of at least 100 GW by 2050.

“While we develop technology for using desert sand to make just one ton of silicon per year, or actually build just one power plant in the desert, all sorts of problems, such as sandstorms, will arise. And we will obtain basic data for solving those problems,” says project leader Hideomi Koinuma, who calls the project the Super Apollo Project, referencing both the Greek god of light and the sun, and NASA’s Apollo project that put man on the moon.

The research is a joint project between Japanese and Algerian universities, including Tokyo University, the National Institute for Materials Science, Hirosaki University, Tokyo Institute of Technlogy, Chubu University and the Universite des Sciences et de la Technologie d’Oran, through the International Research Project on Global Issues by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (JST) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). But the project participants recognize that, ultimately, the task will require a worldwide effort, particularly among North African countries.

Koinuma says the total research expenditure of the project will be 100 million yen (just under US$2 million) annually for five years. He admits that won’t be enough to see the project completed but hopes it will establish the basic technology for providing the ultimate solution to the world’s energy problems.

Training for developing counties

Subscribing to the "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" philosophy, another major aim of the project is to train scientists and engineers from developing countries. To that end, the project won’t just bring well-understood technology from developed countries, but will involve people from both developing and developed countries working together on R&D right from the outset.

“Because technology hasn't yet been established for making silicon from desert sand, then using it to make solar cells, our aim is to work together from the basic research stage, so we can discover and nurture talented scientists and engineers in Africa," said Koinuma.

The project definitely has some lofty and worthy aims. We can only wish them well in their endeavors and hope this is one project that achieves its ambitious goals.

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