Catching the Sun

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With concern building over the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) rapidly growing carbon footprint, Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) has taken the lead in developing new green energy technologies. The sun-drenched northern emirate has embarked on a project to harness solar energy with the aid of state-of-the-art technologies.

The UAE has been labelled by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the leading per capita contributors to global warming in the world largely due to the energy consumption habits of Emiratis and their penchant for gas-guzzling vehicles. In response, the government of the UAE is taking steps towards reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels and creating a greener society by using solar energy.

Worldwide energy consumption is expected to reach the equivalent of 20bn tonnes of petrol a year by 2050, but experts believe that an area covering just 0.05% of the globe's surface with solar panels could provide enough energy to satisfy a quarter of that demand.

While the federal government is coming up with new green initiatives, RAK is leading the solar revolution and is now at the forefront of developing new technologies. The RAK government has invested $5m in research and development for a pilot project that aims to capture the sun's rays out at sea and turn them into electricity and hydrogen.

Known as the solar island, the project involves building floating disc-shaped islands that will be placed just off the RAK coastline. The prototype for the solar island is currently being developed by the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology. Funded by the RAK Investment Authority, it will be tested in the desert before the first sea trials are conducted some time next year. It is hoped to be operational by the end of 2008.

While the prototype may be an impressive 100 metres in diameter, the plans for the completed solar farm envisage an island with a diameter of five kilometres and which will be 20 metres high. The island will use electric hydrodynamic motors, fixed at intervals along the circumference, to adjust its position in line with the movement of the sun, allowing maximum energy yield. The island will be designed to operate in both open water or close to the shore. Under the scheme, the energy generated by the solar island could be used to feed both thermal and desalinisation plant.

One of the great benefits of the technology is that it is relatively inexpensive, with the cost of the prototype itself working out to less than $100 per sq metre. Using a thermal energy reservoir, the prototype island is expected to supply energy for 24 hours a day and can achieve a peak generating capacity of 1 megawatt. The average power generation will be around 250 kilowatts with annual energy production predicted to be 2.2 gigawatt-hours.

Solar energy panels use photovoltaic cells, which use semiconductor silicon technology to convert sunlight particles known as photons into electrons. On the island, a concentrator system will be used to heat water to generate steam, which will be used to produce electricity. The electricity will be used to make hydrogen that can be stored on the island until it is shipped elsewhere, negating the need for costly pipes to the mainland.

However, there remain some significant hurdles to overcome, most notably making sure the island can withstand everything the sea can throw at it. Laboratory tests have proved in theory the island will be able to survive at sea, but this has yet to be proven in a real life sea trial.

While there is a long way to go yet, the future looks bright for solar energy in the UAE with the government aiming for a target of $20bn worth of investments from both the public and private sectors in solar energy infrastructure over the next decade.

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