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A seawater greenhouse is a greenhouse structure that enables the growth of crops in arid regions, using seawater and solar energy. The technique involves pumping seawater (or allowing it to gravitate if below sea level) to an arid location and then subjecting it to two processes: first, it is used to humidify and cool the air, and second, it is evaporated by solar heating and distilled to produce fresh water. Finally, the remaining humidified air is expelled from the greenhouse and used to improve growing conditions for outdoor plants. The technology was introduced by British inventor Charlie Paton in the early 1990s and is being developed by his UK company Seawater Greenhouse Ltd. The more concentrated salt water may either be further evaporated for the production of salt and other elements, or discharged back to the sea. The seawater greenhouse is a response to the global water crisis and peak water.
The seawater greenhouse concept was first researched and developed in 1991 by Charlie Paton's company Light Works Ltd, now Seawater Greenhouse Ltd. The first pilot project commenced in 1992 with the search for a test site that was eventually found on the Canary Island of Tenerife. A prototype seawater greenhouse was assembled in the UK and constructed on the site in Tenerife. The results from this pilot project validated the concept and demonstrated the potential for other arid regions.
The original pilot design evolved into a lower cost solution using a lighter steel structure, similar to a multi-span polytunnel. This structure was designed to be cost effective and suitable for local sourcing. The design was first tested and validated through a second seawater greenhouse that was constructed on Al-Aryam Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in 2000. The year 2004 saw the completion of a third pilot seawater greenhouse near Muscat, Oman in collaboration with Sultan Qaboos University, providing an opportunity to develop a sustainable horticultural sector on the Batinah coast. These projects have enabled the validation of a thermodynamic simulation model which, given appropriate meteorological data, accurately predict and quantify how the seawater greenhouse will perform in other parts of the world.
A seawater greenhouse uses the sun, the sea and the atmosphere to produce fresh water and cool air. The process recreates the natural hydrological cycle within a controlled environment. The front wall of the building is a seawater evaporator. It consists of a honeycomb lattice and faces the prevailing wind. Fans control air movement. Seawater trickles down over the lattice, cooling and humidifying the air passing through into the planting area. Sunlight is filtered through a specially constructed roof. The roof traps infrared heat, while allowing visible light through to promote photosynthesis. This creates optimum growing conditions – cool and humid with high light intensity. Seawater that has been heated in the roof passes through a second evaporator creating hot, saturated air which then flows through a condenser. The condenser is cooled by incoming seawater. The temperature difference causes fresh water to condense out of the air stream. The volume of fresh water is determined by air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation and the airflow rate. These conditions can be modeled with appropriate meteorological data, enabling the design and process to be optimized for any suitable location.
A seawater greenhouse evaporates much more water than it condenses back into freshwater. This humid air is `lost´ due to high rates of ventilation to keep the crops cool and supplied with CO2. The higher humidity exhaust air provides some benefit to the cultivation of more hardy crops downwind of the greenhouse.
This phenomenon could enable the cultivation of biofuel crops in the area surrounding the seawater greenhouse.
The technique is applicable to sites in arid regions near the sea. The distance and elevation from the sea must be evaluated considering the energy required to pump water to the site. There are numerous suitable locations on the coasts; others are below sea level, such as the Dead Sea and the Qattara Depression, where hydro schemes have been proposed to exploit the hydraulic pressure to generate power, e.g., Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal.
If carbon-neutral photovoltaic (PV) panels were available, a seawater greenhouse could be carbon neutral. Unfortunately, current methods of PV production are not perfect. The electrical energy it requires to operate pumps and fans is best produced by solar PV panels as its demand for power is proportional to sunlight.
The use of pesticides is reduced or eliminated as the seawater evaporators have a biocidal effect on the air that passes through them.
A seawater greenhouse produces biological residues. This biomass can be used to help create and enrich the surrounding soil, or alternatively digested to produce bio methane, albeit with less, but still significant quantities of soil nutrients.
Sundrop Farms, Australia
The seawater greenhouse technology was adopted and subsequently modified by Sundrop Farms in South Australia. In particular, Sundrop Farms uses a more robust desalination technique in favour of the water vapour technique employed by Seawater Greenhouse, thus allowing them to construct larger scale facilities. This has been a success, allowing Sundrop Farms to grow crops such as tomatoes in arid climates with only the use of salt water and sunlight, which they use to produce heat, water, and electricity. An expansion of 20 hectares is currently under construction, with completion expected in 2016.
The technology has won a number of awards including:
- “Power Generation & Water Solutions Innovation Award”, 2009 Power Generation and Water Solutions awards, Dubai (2009)
- St Andrews Prize for the Environment, University of St Andrews and ConocoPhillips, (2007)
- The Tech Award, Technology for the benefit of Mankind, Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose CA, (2006) 
- Global annual Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) award for Sustainability[dead link], Institution of Engineering and Technology, (2006)
- A special environmental award was made for the Seawater Greenhouse, which (distils) seawater for use (in agriculture) in arid climates[verification needed], Galvanizer association, (2001)
- Design Museum Sense Award for best practice in sustainable industrial design and architecture[verification needed], Design Museum, (1999)
- Seawater Greenhouse Pilot Project - Canary Islands (1994)
- Seawater Greenhouse wins Tech Awards (2006, Oman & Tenerife)
- Seawater Greenhouse Australia construction time lapse (2010)
- Seawater Greenhouse Australia on Southern Cross News (2010)
- Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal
- Pumping Power calculator - what power is needed to pump seawater to the middle of the Gobi Desert for desalination in the SeaWater Greenhouse? - answer - not a lot, Claverton Energy blog post, accessed 2009-05-02
- Sundrop Farms - News
- Sundrop Farms - Facilities
- "Sea breezer" Seawater Greenhouse featured in "Water Wars: fight the food crisis", Antenna exhibition, Science Museum in London (2011)
- “Growing vegetables in the desert is a cinch with the help of a giant solar still that turns water from the sea into fresh water and cool air. Fred Pearce steps inside the seawater greenhouse”, NewScientist, (2002)
- “Engineers race to steal nature's secrets. Giant wind turbines based on a seed, and desalination plant that mimics a beetle”, The Guardian (2006)
- Seawater Greenhouse videos