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Volume 32, Number 5September/October 1981

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The Spokesmen

Written by Arthur Clark and Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Additional photographs by Aileen Vincent-Barwood and Michael J. Isaac

Behind all important enterprises, there are always special men, and with regard to Saudi Arabia's Solar Energy program the list is long. Among them is 35-year-old Dr. 'Abd Allah Dabbagh, director of the Research Institute at the University of Petroleum and Minerals.

The Research Institute, independent of UPM, was established in 1977 to carry out research "to solve problems that relate to the application of technology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," explained Dabbagh in, ironically, an office carefully shielded from the brilliant sunshine outside. "There was a realization at the time of the kingdom's Second Five Year Plan (1975-1980) that petroleum is a non-renewable resource for energy and solar energy seemed to be the most reasonable alternative."

Dabbagh came to the Research Institute in 1976 with a B.Sc. degree in geology from the American University of Beirut and a Ph.D. degree in structural geology from the University of North Carolina, and was appointed assistant director of the institute in 1977. In 1978 he became director and since then he has been organizing such activities as the solar energy research taking place in the Division of Energy Resources, one of six divisions at the institute - and one of the most interesting. An American, Dr. Bruce Nimmo, 42, is acting head of the division as well as director of the solar program. Nimmo, who holds a Ph.D. degree from Stanford University, has been on the Dhahran campus since 1976. He came, originally, to teach for two years in the Mechanical Engineering Department while on leave from the University of Central Florida, but stayed on to establish the solar energy research program.

At the Research Institute, solar research has had a ranking importance from the very beginning. As early as 1969, scholars such as Dr. "AH Kettani had begun to think that solar energy could be of value to Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom's vast reserves of petroleum, and, not long after, UPM began to look into solar cooling, water heating, desalination and hydrogen production; it was the beginning of a serious commitment to the development of solar technology in - and by -Saudi Arabia.

Six years later, that commitment began to show results. At the 1975 conference of COMPLES (Cooperation Mediterrane pour I'Energie Solaire) at UPM, more than 200 delegates from around the world showed up to hear 120 papers on a variety of solar energy topics and Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Minister of Petroleum and Minerals, made it clear that Saudi Arabia's interest in solar energy was real.

"We all know that the known oil reserves, and what might be discovered in the future, won't be enough to satisfy all our energy demands, except for a few decades, and will be depleted by the mid-21st century," Yamani said. "In order to save our civilization there should be a substitute for this energy, and there is no answer to our demand except solar energy. Though we have a huge reserve of oil in this country, we very much encourage scientific research to establish and find other sources of energy supplies. We do this because we believe that humanity cannot be saved except through this route..."

Division head Bruce Nimmo totally agrees. Asked if he didn't see a degree of irony in his directing a solar energy program virtually on top of the world's key source of petroleum, he replied that he did not.

"It is to the credit of the Saudis that in spite of all the pressures of developing the country and all the difficulties that go with that they are willing to commit the resources to develop solar power," he said. "Oil is a finite resource. With the lesson of the industrial West in mind it is easy to recognize that. We saw this whole thing coming-the rate of oil consumption exceeding the rate of discovery of new resources in the U.S. It's a lesson that is abundantly clear."

With its present income, of course, Saudi Arabia could probably buy all the technology it will need to turn sunshine into energy, but as Dr. Kettani, one of the first solar advocates, is quick to point out, Saudi Arabia must produce its own skilled personnel or lose the chance to determine its energy future, and so has wisely chosen to work in close cooperation with the industrialized world.

As an example. Dr. Kettani points to a Saudi Arab-U.S. solar energy program called SOLERAS, in which Saudi scientists, at workshops in both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., share in the exchange of information among solar researchers. This sort of cooperation, he says, will allow Saudi Arabia "to grow with the technology."

Furthermore, Kettani goes on, Saudi Arabia must eschew wholesale importation of solar energy "gadgets" from abroad. "Solar energy is a raw material, but in its raw form it is useless," he says. "The cost of oil lies in producing and transporting it; the cost of solar energy is in the systems that will convert it into useful form. If we import the means to process solar energy, we are, in fact, importing energy. Unless Saudi Arabia develops its own solar energy industry and uses its own local talent for that purpose, it has not solved the problem whatsoever. The same is true for developing countries."

Dr. Kettani also thinks that to develop indigenous solar energy programs, cooperation among all Arab and Islamic states is vital. In a study he carried out with M.A.S. Malik, former director of the Solar Energy Program at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research, for the first Arab Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi in 1979, he urged the establishment of an Arab Solar Energy Commission to create an inter-Arab "solar energy plan of action." Published later,, in a book entitled "Solar Energy in the Arab World: Policies and Programs", the study was commissioned by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC).

Kettani has high hopes for the Arab solar energy program. Saudi Arabia, he says optimistically, could get 25 percent of its energy needs from solar energy within 25 years-if there is cooperation. "If we don't pool our efforts to develop solar energy, other people will. This world is not waiting for us; the world is aware of the problem of more and more scarcity of fossil fuels. If we don't do something now, we'll be high and dry. There will be no more oil and we will have nothing for our future. For solar power, the time is now..."

Other spokesmen, though restricting their comments to technology, are equally optimistic. One is Dr. 'Abd al-Khalik Muhammad Zakzuk, in the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Riyadh.

A man who refers to himself as "strictly a technology man," Dr. Zakzuk is a graduate of Liverpool University - where, for four years, he did research in integrated circuit technology and semi-conductor devices-and is now in his fourth year at the University of Riyadh, a specialist in micro-electronics as it applies to solar technology - i.e. photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight into electricity.

Though there are presently three small companies in the kingdom manufacturing solar cells - one in Riyadh and two in Jiddah -Dr. Zakzuk would like to see more, partly because he is seeking a product low in cost and high in efficiency. "There are two ways this can be done," he explains, his manner as precise and exact as his work. "By design and technical processes to reduce the cost, and by the choice of material. At present, semi-conductor grade silicon is being used to make solar cells. This is expensive. There is now a solar-cell grade silicon which is cheaper and we hope that within two years or so we can produce silicon solar cells and thin-film solar cells of low cost here at the college."

And Saudi Arabia, he goes on, is the ideal place to test solar technology because of its high summertime temperatures, intense sun and all-pervasive dust, all of which affect its efficiency. Since all three conditions are variables which can significantly increase or reduce the efficiency of a system, and drastically change its performance, Dr. Zakzuk will be recording that data when he performs tests on arrays made of silicon cells.

To Dr. Zakzuk, photovoltaic research is by no means new. "In the field I'm in - microelectronics-we have heard about photovoltaic electricity for at least 50 years. But it didn't really become important until after 1973 and the energy crisis, and now solar technology is in the vanguard of scientific research. We in Saudi Arabia want to teach our students what is new, what isjust beginning, what will be useful to them and their country in the future."

Another spokesman from the University of Riyadh is Dr. 'Ali Sayegh, chairman of the Arab Section of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES), a man who believes that wise men develop sophistication out of simplicity. This, he says, is the story of progress.

Dr. Sayegh firmly believes solar energy can and should replace the burning of petroleum. Oil, he says, should be put to better use: as petrochemical feedstock to manufacture much-needed materials-things like fertilizers, Pharmaceuticals and plastics of all kinds.

Seated in his office in the University of Riyadh's old College of Engineering building -where he has been conducting experiments in solar energy research since 1969 - Dr. Sayegh likes to compare the present state of the art with Thomas Edison's beginning years. "His work was considered impractical and too costly then, too."

Dr. Sayegh also likes to point out that solar research really didn't get under way until 20 years ago, that "the amount spent on it so far is one billionth of that expended on nuclear research," and that "it has taken the industrialized nations 50 years of research and billions of dollars to reach their present imperfect stage of nuclear use, and it still has the disadvantage of producing dangerous wastes which we have not yet found a way to dispose of."

"To get involved in nuclear power," he goes on, "would be a mistake for my country. For one thing it would make us dependent on uranium, which we do not have, whereas we do have sunlight-plenty of it. Besides, nuclear technology is even more costly and highly sophisticated than solar."

Like Dr. Kettani, Dr. Sayegh is an optimist. He expects to see solar technology "leap ahead" within the next 10 years. "It's now a priority rather than a toy," he says, "and more money, more people and more good brains than ever are involved. I fully expect a major breakthrough within a decade."

Where this will occur can't be predicted, of course, but Dr. Sayegh wouldn't be at all surprised if the University of Riyadh experiments play a part in the breakthrough. Funded totally by the university, the solar experiments have included measuring and mapping of the sun's radiation in the area, solar heating and cooling, studies of simple but selective absorptive coating materials, thermal storage, passive building design, and the comparative testing of various flat plate collectors.

According to Dr. Sayegh, the Riyadh experiments already surpass solar research he has seen in Europe and Canada - and the future may hold some startling developments. He predicts, for example, that Saudi Arabia will be able to make hydrogen - by electrolysis using photovoltaic cells - store it in batteries, and export it. And he, himself, hopes to investigate heat storage in a variety of substances such as rocks, water, tar, calcium chloride, water and paraffin wax. Another avenue is the possibility of building greenhouses with roofs made of radiating material which is transparent to infra-red light and which employs night radiation to cool rather than to heat. Still another is the possibility of using buildings and streets to store Saudi Arabia's burning summer heat for later use.

The possibilities, in fact, seem endless. In his third floor laboratory at the University of Riyadh's College of Science and Engineering, for example, Dr. Hammad Safrata has already spent four years testing, experimenting and expanding his knowledge of heat transfer systems and air conditioning, and - with a $2 million grant from SANCST - plans to expand and speed investigations into seven projects. One involves a solar air conditioning laboratory funded by SOLERAS, and the others range from an easily assembled and portable reflector type of solar picnic cooker to a small refrigerator made of entirely local materials, a prototype of a thermal electric system. This fridge uses only solar energy and, having no compressors or fans, requires no maintenance and makes no noise. "It's a practical enough idea," Dr. Safrata says, "but not until photovoltaic cells are cheaper - perhaps in 20 years." Another project is to explore a way to use the available absorption systems of a normal gas refrigerator two different ways -either with electricity or by direct solar heating.

Dr. Safrata s teams are also trying to measure the performance of solar equipment, and trying to find a reliable method of removing dust from collectors, a vital factor in developing solar energy since dust, in a desert climate, coats all equipment daily and reduces efficiency. Dr. Safrata and his colleagues would like to find units of measurement for that dust and design an instrument to measure it accurately. "It would be an entirely new term of measurement," he says, nodding thoughtfully," and something which up till now has had little international attention."

Dr. Safrata believes that Saudi Arabia, by working to develop solar technology, is at least helping to create the breakthrough which, he predicts, is not far off. Furthermore, he says, Saudi Arabia is in an opportune position to learn about solar technology from the beginning. "We must make use of this opportunity and join with the research from the start. No one will give you his know-how. You must get it yourself."

The University of Riyadh, obviously, is playing a key role in solar experiments. But there are spokesmen elsewhere as well. At King 'Abd al-'Aziz University in Jiddah, for example, there are Dr. Mehmet Akyurt, 'Abd Allah al-Mahdi, Dr. Samir 'All. Dr. 'Abd Allah Nasif, the university president, Dr. Muhammad Jamjun, the dean, and - one of the pioneers of solar research in Saudi Arabia - Dr. Jaffar Sabbagh.

Years ago, with Dr. 'AH Sayegh at Riyadh University and Dr. 'AM Kettani of UPM, Dr. Sabbagh pioneered the kingdom's first solar research; at a UNESCO conference in 1972 they submitted papers on solar research from Saudi Arabia. And today he feels as strongly as ever about its importance. "In many fields of research," he says, "Saudi Arabia cannot be said to be very advanced, but in solar we're starting even with everyone else."

Since King 'Abd al-'Aziz University was not founded until 1975 - and is still awaiting completion of needed laboratories - "starting even" may be a shade optimistic. Yet it is undeniable, as Dr. Salah Gahin, chairman of the Mechanical Engineering Department, is quick to say, that the university does have some impressive projects underway: Dr. Akyurt's work with solar collectors and heat pipes; Dr. Muhammad 'Abd Allah Ghazi's solar desalination; and work by Dr. Ibrahim Taha, Dr. Mustafa Elsayed and 'Umaral-Rabghi on solar absorption systems which are part of a solar cooling project involving both absorption systems and vapor compressor systems.

As he describes the projects, Dr. Gahin is careful to mention all researchers, meticulously including Dr. Talib Allah, of the Department of Applied Science, who is doing research on selective coating for flat plate collectors, and Dr. Fawaz Alamy, dean of Meteorology and Arid Land Institute, a part of the College of Meteorology. He also wants it known that he is expecting another $1.9 million for his research and that he expects his laboratories, when fully equipped and operating, to bathe first of their kind in the world. Indeed the Middle East- particularly since the start-up of Saudi Arabia's $16.5 million solar village project - is fast becoming a focal point of world solar development. It is estimated that there are 150 or more solar research projects now under way in over 30 universities and 20 government research centers-as well as in several national oil companies.

The reason is not hard to find: the sunshine falling on the Arab East produces a minimum of three million megawatts of electricity - the equivalent of the output from 3,000 large power stations. In addition, many of the Arab oil countries have both the funds and the foresight necessary to tackle what might be the world's next technological revolution.

An Immodest Proposal

Among the men now backing various solar energy projects in Saudi Arabia, Dr. AH Kettani is one of the more outspoken proponents. Dr. Kettani doesn't mince words - nor proposals.

Moroccan by birth. Dr. Kettani, 39, studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, earned a Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, and is now the head of the 42-nation Islamic Foundation for Science. Technology and Development.

Involved in solar energy ever since he joined the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1969, he recently joined Lenine M. Gonsalves - on leave from Southeastern Massachusetts University- in presenting an astounding proposal on solar energy to Saudi Arabia.

The proposal is to close off 8,000 square kilometers (3,100 square miles) of the Arabian Gulf with dams, lower the surface of the water inside by 12 meters (40 feet) - through solar evaporation - and then generate electricity by letting the Gulf water pour into the dammed-off areas like a great waterfall.

The dams would stretch some 58 kilometers (36 miles) in all, running from the Saudi Arabian shoreline to the Qatar shoreline in the finger of sea between the two countries, and meeting at the island of Bahrain, at the head of Dawhat Salwah, the long bay that would be dammed off.

It is not, obviously, a modest proposal. But, says Dr. Kettani, neither is it as fantastic as it first sounds. The process - called helio-hydraulics-could produce 300 million kilowatt hours per year. In addition, though, the dam could provide a second causeway to Bahrain - and generate tolls - and the dammed-off water could provide an enormous pond for raising shrimp, all of which, Kettani suggests, might make the cost feasible.

This article appeared on pages 23-27 of the September/October 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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