We're used to thinking of the Middle East as an oil-rich region. But it's quietly becoming a center for solar power as well, thanks in large part to the United Arab Emirates, which has invested billions of dollars in developing renewable energy technologies.
Already that investment is bearing fruit. Researchers at the UAE's Masdar Institute have demonstrated that desert sand from that country could be used to store energy at temperatures of more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) in concentrated solar power facilities, or CSP.
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CSP plants utilize arrays of mirrors to focus the sun's energy to a central storage tower. As needed, the energy then is used to heat water into steam and turn turbines to generate electricity.
Using local sand as a thermal energy storage (TES) material, rather than the synthetic oil or salts currently used, might provide a big boost to solar energy because it would reduce costs.
As a Masdar press release explains, the researchers in the Sandstock project analyzed the sand with X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and X-ray diffraction (XRD) techniques, which reveal the dominance of quartz and carbonate materials. They found that the sand's chemical composition indicated that not only could it be used to store concentrated sunlight, but that it even could be used to absorb it directly.
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"The availability of this material in desert environments such as the UAE allows for significant cost reductions in novel CSP plants, which may use it both as TES material and solar absorber," Masdar researcher Nicolas Calvet said in the press release. "The success of the Sandstock project reflects that usability and practical benefits of the UAE desert sand."
In 2012, the World Bank projected that the Middle East and North Africa, another area that's a promising location for solar installations, had the potential to generate enough solar energy to meet 50 to 70 percent of the world's electricity demand.