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谢谢 ('Thank you'); how the Chinese may have 'fixed' that tricky little global energy problem

By Nicolette Smith - 26 Mar 2011 18:2:0 GMT
谢谢 ('Thank you'); how the Chinese may have 'fixed' that tricky little global energy problem

One group of highly-dedicated Chinese Academics. A 20-year-long research commitment. Valuable data obtained over 20 cold winters. More insulatory material than you could possibly imagine.

Who am I thanking and why?

Twenty years after they first began collecting information, a group of Chinese Agriculturalists may have finally found a financially-viable, eco-friendly solution to our global energy deficit. These guys deserve a round of applause; natural disasters such as the New Zealand Earthquake, the Australian Floods and the Japanese Tsunami have resulted in a crop harvest deficit which leave us at risk of a global food shortage. We need a minimal-cost, low-energy way of boosting crop production, and the Chinese may well have found an answer to the problem.

What's all the excitement about?

An investigative study conducted by an academic research team based at the China Agricultural University (College of Agronomy and Biotechnology) has been making international headlines. The researchers have been monitoring the use of solar-powered greenhouse facilities as an innovative means of achieving agricultural targets, and the results appear highly promising….

What's so great about this new Greenhouse then?

During winter, the Chinese agricultural industry relies on the use of a specific design of solar-powered greenhouse - a single-slope solar greenhouse - to cultivate a wide range of vegetable produce throughout the year. The diverse Chinese climate (which can be hot and humid in summer and inhospitably cold during the winter) places a distinct financial strain on Farmers; farming in extreme temperatures can be labour-intensive, demands expensive temperature-controlling measures and makes crop yield unreliable. Without the use of solar greenhouses, the cultivation of a variant crop yield would arguably be far more difficult to achieve. Essentially, the solar greenhouses help Farmers to produce a greater range of vegetables over a longer period of time (i.e. irrespective of seasonal changes in the weather).

What does a single-slope solar greenhouse look like?

How exactly is this cleverly-constructed greenhouse different from your average, workaday greenhouse model? A single slope greenhouse is constructed with a south-facing aspect (to maximise exposure to the Sun which acts as the greenhouse's power source), and has insulated coating covering the east, north and west walls of the structure. The northern end features a ceiling built close to the ground turf, and the southern entrance is made from a Bamboo frame, coated with a further blanket of insulation and is finished with a transparent plastic coverlet.

Single-slope solar greenhouses are designed to be particularly energy-efficient; they use solar panels as their exclusive source of light and heat. The researchers found that solar greenhouses can be used to grow vegetables during the colder Winter months, when agricultural production is typically limited. Only the hardiest, most resilient of produce will continue to grow in inhospitable temperatures, and solar greenhouses enable the year-round production of 'Summer' produce without the use of high-cost, energy-draining synthetic environments.

Research Team Leader Zhen-Xian Zhang said of the results: ''The solar greenhouse has a very bright future, especially given the amount of concern over the global energy crisis and climate change…significant energy savings can be realized from switching to solar greenhouses. We hope this technology can be applied to regions of similar climate to help reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions''.

Ok; I'm now officially as excited about a greenhouse as I'm going to get. What's the catch?

There is a downside; like all solar-powered designs, these greenhouses are reliant upon winter sun. This means that the relative success or failure of crop yield is dependent upon environmental factors outside human control. Zhang explained: ''Innovation and optimization of the greenhouse structure needs to continue. More work needs to be done on gutter-connected, double-arched, and semi-underground greenhouses. New wall insulation materials need to be developed to reduce the thickness of the wall while improving its insulation efficiency and expanding space utilization''.

And the good news?

There is no such thing as a perfect solution, but the Chinese researchers have certainly identified a sustainable, energy-efficient way to boost food production.