1 Apr 2011

Surviving in the Desert Rose

Posted by Deborah

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 – Sede Boqer

In Sede Boqer, there’s an odd sort of mirage shimmering behind the kibbutz: silvery light reflected off rows of 300-square-foot solar panels, all tilted up to capture the sun. As if the desert wasn’t hot enough already, here the students aim to generate even more heat by harnessing the one thing, other than sand, that every desert has in abundance. For Prof. David Faiman, it’s not a question of whether the solar panels work, but how to gather enough supporting evidence to get buy-in from policymakers.

A student checks on the mechanics of a desert solar panel

While the desert might be useful for generating energy, other professors and students here are concentrating on what it lacks: water. To deal with that problem, Israelis have been desalinating ocean water for years. At the campus water institute, researchers continue to look for new and better ways to refine that process. Professor Jack Gilron, for example, has developed a system that uses sensors to detect when the minerals in the water that’s being purified are about to turn into solids (aka brine, etc.) At that point, valves reverse the flow of the filtration, which delays the formation of the solid deposits. I’m sure there’s a better way to explain this. Bottom line – it gives treatment plants more time to extract a higher percentage of clean water. Gilron said the mechanism could have widespread uses for many industrial processes. Another current project will take them to Nablus to help a Jordanian University desalinate the local water supply.

Food completes the last leg of the triangle of survival in the desert. For that, BGU has a host of students studying dryland agriculture. It’s quite a contrast to the Wisconsin cow farms I’m familiar with. Here, students examine what it is that allows certain plants to survive in such a hostile environment and then attempt to cross-breed those characteristics. My brother used to do something similar with cranberries. There, the aim was to breed a variety that would repel insects. Pests aren’t as much of a problem in the desert because they don’t like the hot climate either.

Shimon Milevich uses hand gestures to illustrate the layered root system he’s been studying in a common desert plant

Just before the sun set, Professor Evyatar Erell gave us a tour of the small neighborhood that’s formed near the campus. Though plans for it date back to 1988, Erell claims it was the first attempt to apply “green” building concepts to a neighborhood as a whole. I’m not sure I could handle living in such a small community, but you certainly can’t complain about the canyon views.

Erell, standing in front of the canyon that his home faces

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