Deep In The Desert

The other day I bought BGU t-shirts for my sons (but fear not, Boys – it’s not a case of “My mother went to Israel and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”). One of them said, “Ben-Gurion University of the Negev: Powered by People.” Based on what I learned today at The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Sde Boker campus of BGU, I think the university’s slogan could also be “Power to the People.”

At this point, you may be thinking radical or liberation political movements, but I am referring more to the impressive work of the professors and research fellows at The Jacob Blaustein Institutes in sustainable energy and agriculture and biotechnology that is critical to fueling us and our way of life (and in particular the 45% of the world’s population that lives in deserts and dryland areas – a statistic given to us by Dr. Alon Tal, a – if not the – father of the Israeli green movement, whom we bumped into on campus).

Dr. Alon Tal, a BIG name in the Israeli green movement

As before, I didn’t quite catch all the technical scientific details, but I did come away with some of the major messages the experts we met with were trying to convey. Dr. David Faiman lost me when he started to get into the nitty gritty of photovoltaics at the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center. I did, however, appreciate his telling us that there has been “a silent revolution in the cost of solar energy” that is making it far more affordable. He proposes that hurdles in the way of getting solar energy into Israel’s existing power grid can be surmounted, and that with the development of proper storage technology, solar could provide 90% of Israel’s electricity needs (with the remaining 10% provided by gas turbines in the middle of the night when there is no sun and solar storage is empty).

At the BGU National Solar Energy Center

We also met with Dr. Jack Gilron and Dr. Moshe Herzberg of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. Without clean, safe drinking and appropriate agricultural water – something sorely lacking in this and other desert regions – the power to sustain life will be lost. These two professors shared with us their research into desalination membrane materials and treatments, as well as vertical evaporation techniques, and flow reversal for reverse osmosis technologies (please don’t ask me to explain all of this, because I’m not sure I can at this point). I took special note of the fact that they are involved in projects with Palestinians colleagues in Nablus and with others in Jordan (where residents of the capital, Amman, do not have fresh flowing water every day).

And speaking of desalination membrane research and Jordan, I had the opportunity to interview a PhD student from Jordan who is working in this field. He is one of very few Jordanian students who have boldly come to BGU (and Israel in general) to take advantage of the exceptional education here. This student, Amer Sweity, will be the first Jordanian from Jordan to receive a PhD from BGU.

Jordanian BGU PhD student Amer Sweity

Tours of labs and greenhouses with Dr. Aaron Fait, Dr. Shimon Rachmilevich and Dr. Naftali Lazarovitch, all of whom work in the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands, helped us understand the interdisciplinary work being done in understanding how plants and crops can survive under stressful conditions (who doesn’t find living in the desert stressful?). Their work is also focused, of course, on developing new varieties of crops that can thrive in these conditions, as well as agricultural techniques to promote optimum and economic (in terms of both water amount and money) growth.

Naftali Lazarovitch ingeniously used a slowly rotating cow milking carousel in his irrigation study set-up.

We can’t all be scientists, so I was very pleased that we also had the chance to meet with Dr. Yaakov Garb, a social scientist who specializes in STS (Social Study of Science and Technology). He shared with us a bit about some of his projects, and I got to take away a sheet listing others – almost all of which sound fascinating to me. I can’t quite get over-the-top excited about seed yields or anti-scaling agents, but topics like the politics of mobility in the Israeli-Palestinian space, the spread and strategies of the Islamic movement among the Negev Bedouin, and diffusion and uptake of green technologies a the household level most definitely turn my crank, as they say.

We wrapped up the day with a visit to Dr. Evyatar Erell at the Department of Man in the Desert. An architect specializing in building physics and green building, he showed us prototypes of windows he designed specifically for homes with passive heating and discussed a number of important aspects of architectural design for desert and urban microclimates.

Not having had our fill of the amazing view of the Zin Canyon yesterday, we ended our day there again today following a tour led by Prof. Erell through the adjacent “green” Neve Zin neighborhood, where he personally has a home overlooking the canyon. Talk about a room with a view.

Green architecture professor Evyatar Erell just steps from his backyard.

© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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