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Science & Technology
Artichoke Power


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From Diana J. Choyce
May 22 - 28, 2000

It's no secret that man must find alternatives to natural resource power, and very soon before we delete supplies beyond recovery. But as usual man has put his incredible imagination to work to solve this problem. This week we're going to talk about some of these new ideas.

The most unusual idea comes to us from the country of Spain. Spanish farmers have developed an ingenious method of using genetically modified artichokes to produce electricity. Using a newnewable crop source is an ideal solution. The artichokes have roots of more than 7 meters (yards) long, and are expected to generate power for more than 60,00 people in the towns of Villabilla de Burgos and Alcala de Gurrea.Operations are planned to begin in two years. European Union subsidies and price guarantees motivated the farmers to try this new scheme. Burning vegetables for power is not a new idea but has seen a resurgence in the past few years as man struggles for alternative power sources. There are a number of these "biomass" power schemes in Europe but it is a very competitive business. The company that comes up on top of the competition will likely garner great profit, but should also be content in knowing that their products and ideas could save mankind from a growing dilemma.

Another idea that comes to us from Hawaii, uses sea water to irrigate crops. Cold salt water from the depths of the Pacific Ocean is being pumped into a field at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii on the Big Island to provide the plants with water. The water never touches the soil or the plants directly, but the cold pipes create condensation that waters the garden and eliminates the need for conventional irrigation. The roots of the plants are chilled and tricked into thinking they are in perpetual spring mode. Crops such as artichokes, brussel sprouts, roses and other non-tropical varieties are being used. The method is "a breakthrough for world agriculture," says Dr. John Craven, president of Common Heritage Corporation of Oahu which developed the technique. "It allows us to convert the desert into a sustainable habitat," said Dr. Craven, holder of a degree in ocean engineering. Dr, Craven established the Common Heritage Corporation in 1990 to study and develop sustainable ocean resources. It is a for profit firm whose goal is to establish self-sufficient environmentally, economically and culturally sustainable communities in coastal zones and islands that have access to deep ocean water. Dr. Sylvia Earle, an internationally famous oceanographer and explorer, is a CHC board member. The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii has a site on a lava desert near Hawaii's Kona International Airport, which pumps water from 2,000 feet deep to improve the growth of plants and shellfish. The experimental cold ocean water garden is one of two dozen enterprises at the state research agency. It was founded in 1974 by then Hawaii Governor John Burns and Dr. Craven in his capacity as Marine Affairs Coordinator of the State. Dr. Craven continued as sponsor and chairman of the Board until 1990, when the NELH as an independent State Corporation was converted into an Authority under the Department of Business and Economic Development. Japan is also preparing to launch a commercial spinach-growing operation on Okinawa's Kume Island, providing a large-scale test of the process. That project is expected to pay for itself.

The cold sea water condensation process pumps nutrients up to the plants at a very fast rate. "The colder the root, the tastier the vegetables," says Dr. Craven. "When you harvest, the plant doesn't die; it just keeps growing." The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii was founded to generate electricity from the temperature differential between deep ocean water and the surface. This process proved too costly to use until technology catches up to the idea. So these pipes are now used for the water irrigation process. They currently pump 16,000 gallons of water each minute, at 42 degrees F. The Hawaii Legislature has allocated $15 million to install a 55-inch pipeline that will pump from 3,000 feet down in the ocean. It will triple the volume of water for research.

Other uses for the cold ocean water are being developed. Two of the biggest clam and oyster producers in the U.S. use the NELH site to cultivate more than 330 million shellfish larvae a year. Air conditioning of buildings with cold seawater is also being demonstrated at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. The Lab saves more than $4,000 a month over previous costs in the cooling of its office and laboratory building. Analyses by Makai Ocean Engineering have indicated that for Guam, 10,000 hotel rooms could be air conditioned with cold seawater and that the capital payback period for installing such a system would be approximately five to six years. Deep lake water, too, can be used to cool buildings. Cornell

University in New York is using a similar concept to provide air conditioning for its campus. The water is drawn from 270 feet beneath Cayuga Lake in a system also designed by Makai Ocean Engineering.