These Solar Panels Can Pull in Water Vapor to Grow Crops in the Desert

Less than 20 percent of the energy that goes into a solar panel is turned into electricity. Global researchers are therefore focused on boosting the efficiency of these panels.

Recently, Saudi Arabia researchers used one-of-a-kind hydrogel to make a solar-driven system and successfully grew spinach by using the water from the air while making electricity.

Their proof-of-concept design showed that this is a sustainable and inexpensive method to better the water and food security for people who live in climates that are dry. 

Solar Panels Draw in Water Vapor & Help Grow Food in Dry Climates

Their design was described and published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. According to its senior author, Peng Wang, a professor of environmental science and engineering at KAUST, a part of the population doesn’t have proper and safe access to green power or clean water and plenty of them are from rural areas with a climate that’s semi-arid.

Their design makes water from the air through clean energy that would’ve been wasted otherwise and it’s suitable for the small-scale farms in areas like oceanic islands and desserts.

The system known as WEC2P is made out of a solar photovoltaic panel that’s put atop a hydrogel layer that’s then placed on top of a big metal box and it condenses and collects water.

Together with his team, Wang developed the hydrogel in prior research and this material is capable of absorbing water from the ambient air and releasing the water content after it’s heated.

The waste heat from the panels when generating electricity was used to drive the water that’s absorbed out of the hydrogel. Then, the metal box collects the vapor and condenses the gas into water.

The hydrogel boosts the efficiency of solar panels by as much as 9 percent by absorbing heat and reducing the temperature of the panels.

What Happened During the Experimental Phase?

The team did a plant-growing test in Saudi Arabia for 14 days in June with very hot weather. They used the water from the air to irrigate 60 water spinach seeds that were planted in a plant-growing box from plastic.

The solar panel with a size of a top of a student desk produced 1519 watt-hours of electricity and 57 out of 60 spinach seeds sprouted and grew at a normal rate.

Around 2 liters of water were condensed from the hydrogel in this 14-day period.

What Is the Goal of these Solar Panels?

According to Wang, their idea is to make an integrated system of water, clean energy, and food production. 

To turn their proof-of-concept design into a product, they will work on improving the hydrogen that’s able to absorb more water from the air.

Wang emphasizes that every person deserves to have clean water and clean energy and this is also the mission of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The team was financially supported by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.