These Giant Floating Solar Farms Could be Used to Make Fuel

New research suggests that the floating islands could greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Jul 27, 2019
Solar panels on water at Plover Cove Reservoir

Solar panels on water at Plover Cove Reservoir (seasonweb / Shutterstock.com)

Solar Energy is being used for so many applications now. Solar panels produce electricity, turn sunlight into potable water, and can even turn sunlight into fuel through CO2 capture - until recently only on land! 

Now, a group of Swiss and Norwegian researchers believes that solar islands made up of solar panels that are clustered together can convert the carbon dioxide in seawater into liquid methanol - a fuel that can replace fossil fuels in airplanes and trucks. These floating islands could dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions and the use of fossil fuels.

The study authors argue that the technology already exists to build the islands on a large scale in areas of the oceans that do not have large waves or extreme weather and are shallow enough to allow the farms to be tethered to the ocean floor. Areas off of Southeast Asia, the Arabian Gulf, Northern Australia, and South America are suitable, they say.

“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,” the authors wrote.

The methanol islands are similar to floating fish farms in use today. Every cluster will consist of around 70 round solar panels, or islands, covering an area of approximately half a square mile (1.29 square kilometers). The panels would produce energy by splitting water and isolating hydrogen, which would then react with the carbon dioxide pulled from the seawater to produce methanol.

Patterson, a physicist at the University of Zurich and co-author of the study, told NBC News that a single floating solar farm could produce more than 15,000 tons of methanol a year, enough fuel to run a Boeing 737 airplane on more than 300 roundtrips between New York and Phoenix. The researchers estimate that output from 3.2 million floating islands could meet and exceed the total global emissions from fossil fuels.

The idea of the floating solar farms came to the researchers when they were asked by the Norwegian government to put large fish farms out in the open sea and the grids needed their own energy source. “Energy 'producing' islands had been proposed some time ago,” Andreas Borgshulte, a co-author of the paper told Newsweek. “What remained was to include energy storage.” The team is currently developing the floating island prototypes.

Methanol burns cleaner than fossil fuels and could be  used for long transportation methods, but it isn't enough. Patterson told NBC News that the farms would not be a "silver bullet" in the fight against climate change.

“This is just one of the many things we should be doing to control climate change, along with having better insulation in our homes, having higher efficiency in car engines and driving electric vehicles,” said Patterson.

Anything we can do to help eliminate fossil fuels is a big step in the right direction.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.