Islands in the sun

According to an article posted on the EcoWatch web site (25 June 2019), millions of solar panels clustered together to form islands could be used to convert carbon dioxide in seawater into methanol, which can fuel air-planes and trucks.

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, PNAS, says that these floating islands could drastically reduce global dependence on fossil fuels.

The report argues, “A massive reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning is required to limit the extent of global warming. However, carbon-based liquid fuels will in the foreseeable future continue to be important energy storage media. We propose a combination of largely existing technologies to use solar energy to recycle atmospheric CO2 into a liquid fuel. Our concept is clusters of marine-based floating islands on which photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electrical energy to produce H2 and to extract CO2 from seawater.”

The researchers say 70 such artificial islands would make up a single facility covering an area of around one square kilometre. Facilities would have to be placed in areas where wave height reaches less than seven meters, with low probability of hurricanes and a water depth of less than 600 meters, so that the islands can be moored properly. The output from 3.2 million floating islands is estimated to exceed the output in global emissions from fossil fuels.

Of course, this not a quick fix. With the best will in the world, there is a huge gap between conception and implementation as well as mega infrastructure costs. Nor is it the whole picture. As David Wallace-Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), the transition from dirty electricity to clean sources is only the lowest hanging fruit in the adaptation game:

“…smaller than the challenge of reducing energy demand, which is smaller than the challenge of reinventing how goods and services are provided – given that global supply chains are built with dirty infrastructure and labor markets everywhere are still powered by dirty energy. There is also the need to get zero emissions from all other sources – deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills. And the need to protect all human systems from the coming onslaught of natural disasters and extreme weather. And the need to erect a system of global government, or at least international cooperation, to coordinate such a project.”

And yet islands of solar panels is creative thinking at its very best. So imagine what might be done if all non-medical scientific research for a year or two could be directed at crowdsourcing ideas and investing in workable solutions instead of spending billions on national defence/offence, armaments, and space travel.

As environmental activist Greta Thunberg told the National Assembly in Paris earlier this year, “There is no middle ground when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency… listen to the scientists!”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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