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Renewables might be the fastest-growing industry. News breaks of increased efficiency and output capacity in solar panel and wind turbine technology each passing month. Calculations of needed upgrades to our global renewable infrastructure to reach the desired net-neutral emissions level are constantly in flux. 

While much of this developmental work on renewables is prioritizing upgrades to the underlying technology in terms of energy efficiency, output capacity, and materials costs, a few organizations worldwide have been trying to develop ways of outfitting panels and turbines with a wide array of secondary attributes. For example, if an offshore wind turbine rig could double as an artificial coral reef, the positive impact on the environment would be more significant than simply harnessing energy from wind.

Image courtesy of Diane Serik

A group of researchers at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has been looking into incorporating solar panels into traditional agricultural structures. Although the symbiotic relationship between solar panels and improvements to the health of the underlying crops has already been reported, the team at KAUST is working to find ways of making this work in much hotter and drier climates. We already know by now that the shade provided by panels is an asset for growing crops, not a liability– but whether it can remain helpful in arid environments that are otherwise devoid of vegetation remains to be seen.

As reported in the recent edition of the scientific journal Cell Reports Physical Science, the group looked to integrate a material called hydrogel into the standard solar photovoltaic panel model.

The hydrogel previously had been developed by the same team of researchers and had a unique behavior. It naturally absorbed water from the moisture in the air, then released the water when heated to a certain level.

Led by senior author Peng Wang, the group then attempted to create a setup where the hydrogel would be periodically warmed by solar panels’ excess “waste heat.” The warming process would then cause the hydrogel to release the stored water into a metal container, where it would be used to sustain plant life below. 

The success of the trials could have major ramifications for the future of the burgeoning agrivoltaics industry. Once the prototype has a more streamlined manufacturing process, these panels could be placed all over desert climates, ushering in an era where solar farming and traditional farming go hand in hand despite their fundamental differences. “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 agrophotovoltaics,” said Wang, who is also a professor of environmental science and engineering at KAUST. “I hope our design can be a decentralized power and water system to light homes and water crops.”

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