CRAZY WEDNESDAY: SUN, SEA BUT NO SAND

Although this must be the ultimate “island in the sun”, don’t expect to be holidaying here. This wonderful structure, floating on a circular raft, is the invention of a team at Neuchâtel’s Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). It’s the latest idea in clean energy, and its inventors hope that it will get round some of the current problems of solar technology.

World energy consumption annually is estimated to rise by 2050 to be the equivalent of 20 billion tons of petrol. If renewable sources are to be found, most experts believe that solar power will need to be a large part of the solution. The problems are that the amount that can be generated in this way needs a large surface area, and in many parts of the world land space is simply not available. If, in principle, solar power could supply a third of the world’s needs, the area required would be somewhere around two thirds that of France. Photovoltaic solar panels are also still rather expensive, and still have some way to go in efficiency.

In the CSEM design, the energy does not come from photovoltaic panels, but concentrating the sun’s rays onto arrays of thin tubes filled with water. The steam so produced is then used to generate electricity, which in turn could be used produce hydrogen. The advantage of this is that, rather than needing to be connected to the mainland with cables in order to harness the electricity, the hydrogen is stored on the island itself, and then collected periodically.

A floating design is cheap from a construction point of view, as no supporting structures need to be built, and can be turned to face the sun easily. However, it needs around 350 days’ sun a year, which confines its potential site to somewhere between the tropics, and it is also not known how well it would stand up to storms or high winds.

It looks a little bit as if it ought to be hiding the headquarters of a James Bond villain, but actually this is just a visualisation of the eventual design. The United Arab Emirates fulfils the geographical requirements, and so the immediate project is to build a land-based prototype, which will be located in the Gulf state of Ras al Khaimah. With a diameter of 100 metres, it will be one-tenth of the size of an actual solar island.

It’s a great idea, and water-filled capillary tubes have already been used for solar heating, quite successfully. I just think it’s rather beautiful. Rather like a big white lilypad, it just looks as if it needs a big green frog.

Amanda

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