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Mirai Solar harnesses green energy to power greenhouses

The startup makes greenhouse shade screens that convert sunlight into energy.

The market for greenhouses is being disrupted by Mirai Solar, a solar technology startup out of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which has created foldable roof shades that not only shield produce from intense sunlight but also produce energy to power these facilities.

The 2019-founded business creates retractable, semi-transparent photovoltaic shade screens that generate energy from obstructed sunlight. The PV panels and the shade screen are the two major parts of the system.

When exposed to sunlight, the monocrystalline silicon solar cells in the PV panels produce an electric current that is channelled into the local power distribution panel to support the energy requirements of the greenhouse.

The shade screen, on the other hand, slides back and forth along a track to control the amount of light that penetrates the greenhouse. It is made of specialised light diffusion material. A portion of the sunlight is blocked from entering the greenhouse when the shade screen is completely extended, and more light is let in when it is drawn back.

Usually, a computerised system that uses sensors to gauge the quantity of light entering the greenhouse operates the retractable PV shade screen. To lessen the amount of light entering the greenhouse when the light is too excessive, the system automatically extends the shade screen.

The PV shade screens, however, are actually timer-controlled, allowing the user to set specific times for the screen to retract and expand.

“We wanted to provide ideal light management to the plants, so we engineered a screen that was retractable and had the flexibility of using solar cells with high efficiency and stability, offering us a huge advantage in performance and cost when compared with whatever PV technology was out there,” said Michael Salvador, CEO of Mirai Solar, a doctorate in physical chemistry who joined KAUST Solar Center in 2017.

Saudi greenhouse initiative

Since January, when Abdulrahman Al-Fadhli, the minister of environment, water, and agriculture, authorised investments totaling $1.06 billion until 2025 for the plant resources sector and greenhouses, greenhouses have come under increased scrutiny in Saudi Arabia.

It emphasised the importance of greenhouses in the Kingdom, where the dry, hot environment and scarcity of water resources make it challenging to grow crops sustainably. It paved the way in many ways for controlled environments that shielded crops from extreme heat, wind, and pests, enabling a diversity of crops all year long.

Mirai Solar’s co-founder and CEO Michael Salvador at the KAUST Solar Center.

These plant shelters are essential for the nation’s food security because they help boost domestic fresh produce output and decrease reliance on imports. Given the expanding population and the need to satisfy the rising food demand, this is especially crucial.

However, Saudi Arabian greenhouses use a lot of electricity to sustain ideal growing conditions during severe weather. For instance, during the summer, temperatures can rise to 50 degrees Celsius, necessitating the constant operation of air conditioning and cooling systems to maintain a comfortable temperature in the greenhouse.

The fundamental energy requirements of a greenhouse, according to industry reports, include lighting, dehumidification, heating, and cooling, which may account for more than 90% of the total power usage. Consequently, greenhouse energy economy is crucial.

Energy efficiency

In this situation, Mirai shade screens’ chances look much more promising because they were designed in particular for high-tech buildings, which typically use 500 kWh per square metre per year and mid-tech greenhouses, which typically use 80 kWh per square metre per year.

“We are at a stage where we can deliver a minimum of 80kWh per sq.m. per year so we can fully cover the electricity needs of a mid-tech greenhouse and a certain percentage of the demand of a high-tech facility,” Salvador added.

Due to the flexibility of the solution, it can be incorporated into new greenhouse constructions or retrofitted to existing greenhouses as a drop-in replacement for traditional shade screens.

When you ask Salvador where he got the idea for this invention, he will respond, “KAUST.” Salvador met Ryan Leyfus, one of the founders of Red Sea Farms, another creative KAUST spinoff that established saltwater-based agriculture in the Kingdom, shortly after enrolling in the institution.

Leyfus raised the issue of growing plants in traditional shade screens and germinated the concept of a photovoltaic panel that looks like them and performs in a similar manner.

“We proposed the idea to the Technology Transfer Office of KAUST. They were convinced of the idea and provided us with a grant that helped us to develop a minimum viable product and later our first pilots on a sizable scale,”said Salvador,who ultimately hosted a Red Sea Farms demonstration at their greenhouse facility on the university grounds.

In Saudi Arabia, Mirai Solar has been operating a number of pilot sites, including Estidamah and Al-Rasheed. Even as it searches for funding to expand the scope of its operations, the business is also producing a PV system that will be installed in California around April. This is just the beginning.

In the near future, the solar technology company will go beyond the confines of the greenhouse to build solar-powered parking lots for electric cars and use its foldable modules to power mobile shipping containers. Salvador is determined to advance things further.

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