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Incredible solar panels extract water from air to grow crops in desert

Saudi Arabian scientists have developed a solar-powered device that has successfully grown spinach using water taken from the air while simultaneously creating energy using a special type of hydrogel.

A solar photovoltaic panel is placed on top of a layer of hydrogel, which is placed on top of a huge metal box to condense and collect water in the WEC2P proof of concept system. Researchers have previously produced a hydrogel capable of collecting water vapour from the ambient air and releasing the water content when heated.

The absorbed water was driven out of the hydrogel using waste heat generated by solar panels while generating energy. The vapour is collected in the metal box below, which then condenses into water. By absorbing heat and decreasing the temperature of solar photovoltaic panels, the hydrogel improves its performance by up to 9%.

To take things a step further, the researchers used WEC2P to undertake a plant-growing experiment in Saudi Arabia for two weeks in June, when the weather was scorching. They irrigated 60 water spinach seedlings put in a plastic plant-growing box using just water gathered from the air.

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The solar panel, which was the size of a student’s desk, generated 1,519 watt-hours of power over the course of the experiment, and 57 out of 60 water spinach seeds germinated and developed regularly to 18 cm. During the two-week timeframe, about 2 litres of water were condensed from the hydrogel.

Senior author Peng Wang, a professor of environmental science and engineering at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology explains, ‘Our goal is to create an integrated system of clean energy, water, and food production, especially the water-creation part in our design, which sets us apart from current agro photovoltaics’.


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