Sharjah's eco-domes show the future of farming

Space-age homes and solar 'rainmakers' among latest sustainable projects on show at Sharjah research park

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From aquaponic agriculture and solar-powered "rain-making" panels to energy saving eco-homes – the latest environmental projects at Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park offer a glimpse into the future of the UAE.

Water and environmental technologies are two of the six key research projects attracting collaborations between scientists, researchers and students from the American University of Sharjah.

Transport, construction, big data and renewable technologies are other key areas of research, but it is the park's farm and eco-estate that are attracting the most attention.

We have a fully indoor growing area of vertical farms to allow us to grow crops year round, even at the height of summer

Anshu Santosh, a farm manager from India at the park, specialises in managing sustainable agriculture.

“We mainly grow lettuce, leafy greens, tomatoes, chillies and beetroot,” she said.

“We have a fully indoor growing area of vertical farms to allow us to grow crops year round, even at the height of summer.

“Strawberries and tomatoes flourish in the grow beds, with special lights used to replicate the role of sunlight so the photosynthesis process can happen. The temperature is controlled by air conditioning, all powered by solar.”

Aquaponics is a more sustainable way of farming, using fish waste to fertilise crops without using soil.

The fish release waste that drains into a swirl filter tank. The water rotates and deposits sediment. The clean water then re-circulates back to the plants.

The process allows natural bacteria to convert the ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates to add nutrients to the plants.

“We do not add anything artificial like potassium, nitrogen phosphate or other chemicals you may see with conventional soil-based farming,” said Ms Santosh, who supplies markets and online stores with the farm’s produce.

“The water is re-circulated. It is not thrown away, so the process requires much less. The fish and plants grow together.”

Cooling pads on the wall control the temperature and humidity to help the plants grow in a controlled environment during summer.

Solar panels generate energy to the aquaponic system to ensure the entire process is environmentally sound.

Produce grown in the farm uses 90 per cent less water than traditional agriculture and has a 40 per cent smaller energy footprint.

Merlin Rainmaker panels, a solar-powered desalination and purification tool, are also on the farm.

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Nick Webster. News. A grow tunnel at the Eco-green technologies research site at Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park. Sharjah. Wednesday, January 6th, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National
One of the vertical farms at Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The three square-metre sheets provide clean, drinkable water without the need for expensive filters, membranes or chemicals.

The system moves pure water by gravity or pump into a feeder pipe at the top of the unit. From there it drains along a solar evaporator, where it is evenly dispersed.

Solar energy heats the water to create condensation and droplets of naturally purified, desalinated water run into a collection point.

The process eliminates all bacteria and pathogens to prevent water-borne diseases.

As the rainmaker only uses the Sun's energy and has no moving parts or electronics, it is easy to operate with minimal maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, homes made from fibre-reinforced polymer are covered in vines or Bermuda grass and resemble something from science fiction.

Inside, the domes are cool in summer and warm in winter because of the natural insulation provided by nature.

They are surrounded by a series of bio-spheres where agriculture is reaping rich rewards, without the chemicals, soil and irrigation of conventional farming.

An indoor chamber with special grow lights, powered by solar and wind, is another of the farm's agricultural attractions.

“In the summer, we find it difficult to cultivate crops in the aquaponic chamber as it is too hot and humid,” said Ms Santosh.

“That is where the indoor vertical farms come in.

"The liveable domes are used year round and remain cool even at the height of summer with minimal use of air conditioning.

“Even that is powered by the wind and solar. All these ideas could be used on a larger scale in the UAE in the future to reduce our environmental impact.”

Since 2016, the site has attracted academics and scientists to develop innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.

It ties in with the UAE's pledge to slash carbon emissions by a quarter before 2030 and it rubber stamps the nation's commitment to meet the objectives of the Paris agreement on climate change.

Many of the latest projects born in the Emirates and further afield will be on show during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, an online conference that begins on January 19.