"Sahara Solar Breeders" don't sand a chance

Or, “how to make pie in the sky using our simple recipe”. From the New Scientist, making solar power is just as easy as building a few factories in the middle of the Sahara Desert and then making solar cells out of the sand to make electricity, which will be transported around the planet by a supercooled superconductor transmission system. Gosh, impressive, and easy as pie. Watch the video below to see just how easy it all is.

The Sahara Solar Breeder Project is a joint initiative by universities in Japan and Algeria that aims to build enough solar power stations by 2050 to supply 50 per cent of the energy used by humanity.

The idea is to begin by building a small number of silicon manufacturing plants in the Sahara, each turning the desert sand into the high-quality silicon needed to build solar panels. Once those panels are operating, some of the energy they generate will be used to build more silicon plants, each churning out more solar panels and generating more energy that can be used to build even more plants, and so on.

Hideomi Koinuma at the University of Tokyo leads the Japanese end of the project. He admits that making silicon panels from the rough sands of the Sahara or other deserts has not been attempted before, but says it is a logical choice.

“From the viewpoints of quality, quantity and chemistry, Sahara sand is hard to beat for use as silicon for solar cells,” he says.

Koinuma wants to use “high-temperature” superconductors to distribute the power as direct current – more efficient than a conventional alternating current. Despite their name, high-temperature superconductors typically operate at around -240 °C, and the long power lines will require a formidable cooling system.

Advertisements

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Adam

I like it! Granted I don’t believe they’ll reach their goals, in fact I doubt they will get up to more than a few plants before funding is cut, but I like the idea of “mining” sand for silicon. Also I believe solar power has great potential, and the only way it will reach that potential is if people have sufficient motivation to improve and cheapen solar power technology. And getting the most profit on a whole bunch of solar power plants is definately sufficient motivation.

Lawrie Ayres

There have been suggestions from Cancun that we humans could consider carbon rationing, the introduction of wide spread diseases and mass suicide to protect the planet. While I wait for those making the recommendations to go first so we can see if their proposals are effective I suppose turning the Sahara into a giant PV is less threatening.
I missed out on an university education and so have had to live a reasonably sucessful life using common sense and observation. At no time have I realised that my very existence was causing such heartache to the learned. OTOH we could just ignore their ramblings as they cry for relevance.

Antonia

The word, ‘humanity’, is an abstraction and has nothing to do with actual people’s lives.

TimG

Ok. Let’s assume the technical hurdle’s can be surmounted.
How many people would even consider leaving their power in the hands of whatever thugs happen to be running the saharan states?

For me, that could also work on planet Mars!
These guys don’t have a clue!
Ecotretas

John Marshall

Looks so easy I start tomorrow. Oops, we are snowed in at the moment so will have to put this project off.
Looks so easy on paper, or Power Point. But near to impossible in reality.
Best idea is to use fossil fuels and perfect bio-digestion for methane production for electricity generation. The extra CO2 will help grow more crops to feed the masses.

Jack

Why can’t they just be honest and call it what it really is? A perpetual motion machine.
Still, if it is funded solely by middle east oil money, it isn’t all bad.

Terry G

Read “Engineers Dreams” by Willie Ley published back in the 1950,s for much easier
ways of producing free power!

H.R.

“Despite their name, high-temperature superconductors typically operate at around -240 °C, and the long power lines will require a formidable cooling system.”
I’m guessing the cooling system will need most of the energy the solar panels will produce.

DirkH

I thought about this breeder concept a while ago. The problem is that at the moment, producing the solar cell costs as much energy as it will deliver back in 10,000 hours of peak energy production. This might be achieved in the Sahara in about 5 years (wild guesstimate; i didn’t look up the number of sunshine hours they have their but i know it would be 13 years with Germany’s 780 peak sunshine hours equivalent per year).
So, with what would you bootstrap the process? Why would anyone want to produce that stuff in the Sahara when it’s probably much cheaper and faster to just produce it wherever we produce it now and move it there.
What’s lacking is not the sand, not the silicon, not the energy, not the workers – what’s lacking is a business case.

Brian Johnson uk

How much CO2 will be generated in providing thousands of miles of superconducting super-fluids? OMG!
Too much grant money being generated on hopeless projects. Spend the money on Nuclear and Coal and Gas and Oil and get back to reality!

NovaReason

Sadly, this is about the best solar idea I’ve ever seen, IF it wasn’t for the fact that if centralized power generation with long transmission lines were that great of an idea, someone would have done it already. Keeping power lines only a few degrees from 0 K is also going to be about the most inefficient thing I’ve heard of.
Anyone with a solid understanding of the amount of energy required to keep cool, say, 10,000 miles of power cable at -240 C should do some napkin math to figure it out… I really don’t know enough about supercold insulations, but the gradient being what it would, I’d imagine there’s at least a significant amount of heat transfer that can’t be avoided.
I’m definitely willing to bet that given the overall shortcomings of solar power that
1) when it’s night on the Sahara, and the solar stops flowing, the lines will have to be maintained at that temp by more conventional means, the energy drain from this will likely mean that coal or nuclear plants will need to be built to support the infrastructure, making the whole process pretty futile.
2) It’s the Sahara… you picked it because there’s lots of sand and sun, but there’s also sandstorms… how much is the small army that will be required to keep cleaning the cells going to cost?
3) Of course, this is assuming that this person is actually trying to build a market viable strategy… if this is another watermelon pushing an economically suicidal idea that won’t do half of what it’s planned to do, and will cost 3 arms and 4 legs each to reach 25%, never mind 50%, then it will hopefully be ignored, once we all get a good laugh at the horror story of the economics involved.

Tom

Wind energy fairs are always fun for this reason. There are always people there pushing their high-temp superconductors for generator windings. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“So, I should buy a generator that uses your high-temp superconductor for my turbine design?”
“Yes! You’ll be cool and everyone will like you! It makes the puppies happy! It’s a SUPER conductor. Don’t you want SUPER turbines?”
“Yes, quite. So, this ‘high’ temperature, what is it exactly?”
“Er, about 100K.”
“And how much energy does it take to keep the generator at 100K?”
“Not much!”
“How much?”
“Er, about 50kW.”
“So, about 10% of my average energy capture?”
“Er, yes.”
“And what are my bearing lubricants going to look like at 40K?”
“Er, well…”
“Come on…”
“Er, solid. But we can sell you super-dooper low temperature lubricants…”
“Thanks for your time, goodbye.”

I concur, that ought to be a rather simple project what with their only gonna be .0001‰ of people having access to electricity in the year 2050. The only sane people left that stuck to their guns, all living in the same walled city protected from all the crazed environuts (that would be all them poor sods that were stricken by the crazed envirohippie bug) that are roaming “free” in the country side gobbling up all the animals as the frakking please. Of course a story is nothing without the antagonists so the frakking c[r]ockroaches, err sorry crazed hippie climate communists, are still going in their lovely “mud” (they call it mud still because it used to be mud once upon a time) pie city called, of bloody course, Utopia. However they’re living on diminishing returns what with their recent bout into doom and gloom of starvation, and since they are ever so natural living one with gaia, what better snack then exist than once own neighbor?
But pretty soon the “natural” utopians realizes that, hey this isn’t how was supposed to be? So what options do they have, but yet again influences the masses, the mobs, the animal gobblers, and attack that heinous vile despicable fusion powered (by old oil and old coal, bleh) flowery bounti-beautiful watery gardens, aptly named, after 30 years deliberations and debate until bossmann authoritarilly decided with his schtick up panzer pantz rump, instead (because there comes a time, even in manns history, when one has to take command and show who’s really the bossmann) Dystopia (which they still laugh, evilly, at, as their only inside joke, about every friday night after “Billy’s” BBQ, poking fun at that lonely coal heap of remains at the end of a hard week, so to speak.)

“Well, we can research it for $100 million yen, but gosh, we’ll need a lot more to make this happen. And hey…just make that check out to ‘cash’. I’ll take care of it. Really.”

Whilst my first response to this is that it sounds like ‘pie in the sky’, it would be interesting to see a detailed rebuttal showing how the costings do not stack up. I am sure there are plenty of people who will fall for this, particularly as it is in a ‘science’ magazine.

Not sure why they would not stand a chance. The technology seems that it would have to be worked out, and I’m dubious about the cost of cooling helium to send power (I’d have thought being underground at a few degrees C would be enough for DC, but hey).
I would be very dubious about:
1. Water to clean the panels
2. Sandstorms (as the guy says)
3. Political problems in that part of the world (notice none of the interested parties actually LIVE there?)
4. Security of the power lines (related to (3)).
5. Masses of energy in the day and none at night (when all those electric cars are being charged).

Jeff

Now, if only the Sahara weren’t an incredibly unstable area, politically. Any plants and transmission lines would be subject to protection rackets and practically indefensible.

How many divisions will bee needed to guard it?

Erik

It’s Edison vs. Tesla redux.

J.Hansford

It won’t work at night and at a reduced capacity when cloudy….. and it would cost more than it is worth trying to keep the dust and sand off the solar panels…… The whole thing is impractical and laughable…. and wildly expensive…. and typical of the Green Communists.

Looks to me like someones ego is WAY bigger than his paycheck and he wants a sugardaddy…
IFF I was going to do this, I’d make it solar thermal rather than PV. Cheaper to do by far and you can still make your mirrors out of sand / glass.
The notion that folks would be building whole new ‘sand up’ manufacturing and dotting these things around the desert is just nuts. It’s far cheaper and easier to move the sand to a factory near things like, oh, water, power, transport (for all the OTHER materials you will need), labor supply (and the attendant housing and entertainment) and all the rest.
Oh, and we’ve built a bunch of massive solar farms now (at least 2 that I remember in the Mojave alone, plus those in Spain). Last I looked none of them were making much / any money. I don’t see how putting it further out in a more hostile desert and further from markets that need the product will be improving the economics any…

Damn you, Erik! Damn you, sir! You got there first.

grienpies

Just imagine this would really work and every one would want the solar energy. Just imagine how filthy rich those guys will get, but the worst would be the solar energy would be cheap and abundant (IF it worked like proposed, probably not).
And then imagine how Green Peace and our greener friends will start to cry and count 1345 reasons why this form of solar energy will lead straight to Armageddon.
Solar and wind are only “environmentally friendly” as long as they push energy prices to the sky and make energy scare.
THOU SHALT BE HUMBLE AND MODEST
this is what it is all about, not solving energy problems.

Dave Springer

“Despite their name, high-temperature superconductors typically operate at around -240 °C, and the long power lines will require a formidable cooling system.”
Despite this being a science blog there’s often a dearth of it.
-240C (30 Kelvin) is the transition point between traditional (BCS theory) superconductivity and high-temperature superconductivity. BCS theory predicted that 30K was the highest possible temperature where superconductivity could exist.
In 1986 a new class of superconductor was discovered in materials where the mechanism was different than BCS. There is no theory for superconductivity in these materials.
By 2009 at least three superconductors had been discovered that operate at temperatures above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen 77K with one as high as 133K.
As of today the record for superconductivity is with a cupric oxide compound (Tl4Ba)Ba2MgCu8O13+. It superconducts at temperatures up to -8C (17F).
The holy grail is a room temperature superconductor. So far we’ve got up to household freezer temperature. There is no “typical” operating temperature for high-temperature superconductors and if there was it would certainly be above the definitional minimum of 30K.
Current record holder:
http://www.superconductors.org/254K.htm

Dave Springer

E.M.Smith says:
December 3, 2010 at 4:14 am
“IFF I was going to do this, I’d make it solar thermal rather than PV. Cheaper to do by far and you can still make your mirrors out of sand / glass.”
Thankfully you’re not doing it. Solar thermal is and will continue to be hobbled by the need for heat engines to convert heat to mechanical energy and then generators to convert mechanical to electrical energy. Photovoltaic is solid state – no moving parts. Comparing the two is like comparing an abacus to an electronic calculator.

Joseph Murphy

While I love solar, this idea doesn’t sit well with me. I believe the future of energy is personal production and moving away from the grid. Solar can be a large part of that. PV cells just need to have a better conversion rate, react with more of the electromagnetic spectrum, and cost about as much as a piece of paper. =D

DCC

Look on the bright side. Neither the US nor the UK government is involved in this boondoggle. We definitely saved a buck and a Pound there.

Steve R

Has everyone given up on Fusion power? We were promised for decades that was the Holy Grail of alternative energy. We never hear of any new ideas on that front.

RockyRoad

This whole concept reminds me of hair-brained plans to mine minerals on the moon.
Apparently, “researchers” think they can extract enough valuable metal from lunar basalt to make a viable mine. The idea is ludicrous. The moon has no evidence of plate tectonic, hydrothermal, or magmatic activity, and any of these three are prerequisite processes for ore body formation–a pre-concentration process. The only viable ore that could be processed on the moon would have to come from iron-rich meteorites, and finding enough to constitute an ore body would be essentially impossible–equivalent to the merits of this Sahara Solar Breeder project.

I think that this should be viewed as a geo-engineeing project.
The Solar/electrical engineering is well understood — but how about the effects of turning that much of the land mass into an electrical system and changing the albedo.
I can imagine the amazement of future archeologists as they try to fathom the purpose of the site and the wisdom of changing the worlds weather systems.

Grey Lensman

The obvious “catch”, why did they choose the Sahara?
Emotions.
Why not Northern Western Australia or Central Australia, loads of sun sand and expertise.
Any accurate figures on the amount of total energy needed to make a solar panel?

starzmom

So long as it’s not with my money, go for it. It’s the perfect laboratory for solar power. But, I repeat, not with my money.

Also from the New Scientist, “Wind turbines make bat lungs explode”, no joke;
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14593
and this is in addition to clipping the wings and heads of birds:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtgBWNKwBkE&feature=related
Green energy at its finest…

marcoinpanama

Notwithstanding all of the BS detectors that are with good reason going off above, the original proposal I read for a superconducting power line actually made some (emphasis on some) sense. The plan was (still is?) to use electricity at the source to generate liquid Hydrogen, which would be pumped down the (underground for insulation) pipe to cool the superconducting electrical conductor. At the user end, the H2 would be drawn off to power transportation devices and the electricity used as, guess what, electricity. With massive nuclear plants producing the cheap source power, it just might work. With solar cells cycling day/night, not a prayer.
In addition, making semiconductor-grade silicon is exquisitely difficult, which is why there was a global shortage when PV ramped up. If it made any sense at all to locate the plants near the sand, it would have been done long ago. Looney in the extreme.
New Scientist joined SciAm on my do-not-subscribe list awhile ago thanks to stories like this.

dave ward

He describes it as “Probably Do-able”. So immediately seeds of doubt are sown. Further more even IF it could be made to work, the video says 100GW could provide power for half the planet. Last night the UK’s electrical demand was in the region of 44GW, so I guess lots of others will be in the dark…. And even though the Sahara spans a considerable area it will only be fully sunlit for part of a 24 hour period, so conventional generation will be needed at other times. This will be subject to the same inefficiencies as it is now when trying to cover intermittent wind power.

Dave Springer

Caveats:
The OP title is “Don’t sand a chance” is still essentially correct. PV technology is still in its infancy comparable to the first transisters in solid state electronics. Morever high temperature superconductors are hideously expensive to manufacture and absent a theory to explain them improvment is entirely by trial-and-error. If there were a theory behind them then an easy-to-manufacture material could be found by design instead of by experiment and serendipity. PV technology on the other hand is progressing in the normal sequence of advance in solid-state electronics. For PV to be competitive with natural gas fired turbine generators (the most efficient means of generating electricity at this point in time) they need 3x improvement in cost/performance which for solid-state electronics is no great leap. A 10x leap can be reasonably expected and should be planned for. The fly in the ointment is and will remain in storage and distribution. Decentralized production is the way to go which requires no investment in a higher capacity distribution grid along with continued but greatly reduced reliance upon existing electrical generation to satisfy demand when and where the sun isn’t shining. The ideal solution is PV solar power sats which produce electricity 24/7 as the sun never sets in high orbit and beaming the power down to the surface whereever it is need via microwave transmission to relatively small footprint antennas on the surface. The cost of lifting mass from the surface to orbit remains the major obstacle along with environmentalist whackos concerned about minor atmospheric heating by the microwaves and possible adverse consequences to birds and bats and butterflies caught in the beam’s surface footprint.
Biomass liquid fuel production is even more infant than PV technology but holds even greater promise for vast rapid improvement as genetic engineering knowledge and techniques improve. Genetic engineering is progressing at an extremely rapid pace. For instance just 10 years fully sequencing a human genome was a billion dollar undertaking. Now it costs $10,000 and is still dropping like a stone. Just ten years ago it was a costly error prone process just splicing a novel gene into an organism. Today a fully functional artificial bacterial genome with a thousand genes can be strung together from mail-order DNA snippets. It’s only a short matter of time until we understand enough of the molecular machinery of life before we can create artficial bacteria with any mix of capabilities found in nature and program the artifical beasts to perform tasks like the armies of self-replicating robots that they are. We live in interesting times on the cusp of new technologies that exceed agriculture, metallurgy, and solid state electronics in the capacity for beneficial use.

Curiousgeorge

Of course there would need to be a large workforce (read cities) to maintain all that junk. Said cities would require all the same stuff that other cities require – like water, food, infrastructure, hookers, etc., etc. I suspect that the majority of the power produced would be used within the supporting workforce and very little would be available for sale outside the immediate area. It’s very much like any other town that grows up around a mining site, oil field, or other moneymaking venture.

Grey Lensman says:
December 3, 2010 at 4:58 am

The obvious “catch”, why did they choose the Sahara?
Emotions.
Why not Northern Western Australia or Central Australia, loads of sun sand and expertise.

North Africa is nearer to Europe and the US, and is thus cheaper to send power to (as it will cost a lot to transport). Australia is only near to China, and they won’t want power.
Oh, wait….

Rick

And the West continues to steal the resources of the poor muslim countries, or at least plot to.
After years of fixing cooling lines, repairing water channels, re-running blown up electrical lines, the project would be abandoned quickly.

chris y

Dave Springer-
“Despite this being a science blog there’s often a dearth of it.”
-240 C is a correct value for operating temperature of a high Tc superconducting cable.
If you want to carry substantial power on a realistic superconducting cable, the current density is high. But as you know, the maximum current density (before the material transitions to normal and the resistivity increases by 1 to 3 commas) depends on operating temperature. The closer to the superconducting-normal transition temperature Tc that you operate, the lower the peak current density possible while maintaining the superconducting state. To carry useful amounts of power, the operating temperature must be well below Tc.
As for (Tl4Ba)Ba2MgCu8O13+, it is a tantalizing research result. There’s a bit of work to do before this material shows up in a useful power cable. For starters, isolating the correct phase in a sample would be helpful, followed by forming a sample of only that crystalline phase. YBCO superconductor ceramic took more than a decade to move from Edmund Scientific educational kits into a useful power cable.
If superconducting long-distance cables are ready to deploy, perhaps they should be used to transport electricity to the west coast from new super ultra critical coal-fired plants located at the gargantuan coal deposits in Wyoming. You can substitute coal transportation with electricity transfer on superconducting cables. The waste heat and CO2 fertilizer can be piped into massive greenhouses that produce GM vegetables.

North of 43 and south of 44

Ecotretas says:
December 3, 2010 at 1:17 am
For me, that could also work on planet Mars!
These guys don’t have a clue!
Ecotretas
Well at least it would be easier to keep that Superconductor cool enough, not so sure about getting that power line from there to here though ;-).

Olen

They of course can do the project as long as they don’t attempt to do us by soaking up tax dollars.
Someone mentioned this lacking a good business case. Shouldn’t the technology be proven to work first and before that shouldn’t the need for such a project be proven.

Once I read a book from Dick Feynmann. It was shortly after WWII and them physicians had a meeting with Army brass. They were kept in high esteem because of A-bomb. One general seriously proposed, that if Uranium can produce so much energy from limited mass, what about doing the same with, for example, silicon which is plentiful. His idea was, that tanks would take the soil rich in SiO2 from the bottom via some shovel and readily covert it into energy, so their problem with limited range would be solved. Kiddin’ you not! Wish to see those physicians that moment.

Jeremy

And where exactly will they get the power to keep the HTSC cold? Last I checked they’ll need to keep their conductor at about ~120K or -153 C.
Compressors are NOT low power devices, helium compressors especially.
Some people evidently never left fantasy-land.

Jeremy

Dave Springer says:
December 3, 2010 at 4:29 am
Current record holder:
http://www.superconductors.org/254K.htm

This doesn’t look like a very convincing transition to me.
http://www.superconductors.org/254Rplot.jpg
They have a drop of approximately 10 millivolts of a 4-point reading of 900+ mV and they consider that a Tc? Generally whenever I measured Tc I expected to see it drop to noise or immeasurable voltage, but clearly they have a measurable voltage prior to their claimed Tc. Why would this be? On the surface here, it seems like they’re bending the rules of what a HTSC is supposed to do.

Paul Milligan

The solutions to the worlds energy problem! They should put this on How To Do It:

Jeremy

chris y says:
December 3, 2010 at 5:48 am
-240 C is a correct value for operating temperature of a high Tc superconducting cable.

This is also incorrect as far as I understand things; -240C is 33Kelvin. I’ve worked on HTSC coated conductors and we had them above liquid nitrogen temperatures and our standard Tc was ~90-100 Kelvin which is around -173 degrees Celsius. Also, HTSC are used in medical applications today, and my understanding is they operate much closer to liquid nitrogen temperatures than liquid helium.

The proposed Desertec system is designed to be a 100TW solar generating network built in North Africa and the Middle East. The current estimated total cost is ~$550 billion… ~$5.5 million/MW installed capacity. They claim that by 2050 it will deliver 700 TWh per year to Europe. At 15 cents per kWh (wholesale), Desertec will generate an annual gross revenue of $105 billion if it really delivers 700 TWh per year. That’s enough to cover the construction cost principle (pay out) in 35-46 years (30-40 years to build and 5-6 years of operation).
According to Gizmag, “the project ultimately aims to achieve a solar plant with an annual capacity of at least 100 GW by 2050.” 100 GW is 1/10 of a TW…
The Sahara Breeder will only have 1/1000 the generating capacity of Desetec. The claim that the Sahara Breeder will deliver 50% of the world’s electricity. Desertec, which will be 1000 times bigger, is designed to deliver 15% to 20% of Europe’s electricity. I tend to think the economics of the Sahara Breeder will be far worse than the already abysmal economics of Desertec.
Cost of Electrical Generation Power Stations ($/MW installed capacity)

Natural Gas: $600.000 to $900,000
Coal: $900,000 to $2,000,000
Wind: $2,000,000
Nuclear: $2,000,000 to $7,000,000
Solar Photovoltaic: $5,500,000 to $7,000,000

If Desertec really had to compete with nuclear, natural gas and coal, it could only charge 3 to 7 cents per kWh (wholesale). This would push “pay out” up to about 70 years. I’m currently paying about 9.5 cents/kWh (retail) in Dallas, Texas. The proposed Solana solar plant in Arizona will have a guaranteed, long-term, 14 cents/kWh (wholesale) contract to deliver electricity to the state’s utilities.
The economics of solar power are mind-bogglingly bad.

Correction…
According to Gizmag, the Sahara Breeder “project ultimately aims to achieve a solar plant with an annual capacity of at least 100 GW by 2050.” 100 GW is 1/10 of a TW…