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UAE to grow food and fuel in desert using seawater

A view of SBRC’s food and bio-fuel facility.

By Staff

The world’s first research facility to grow both food and fuel, using desert lands irrigated by seawater, began operations on Sunday on a 2-hectare site in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

The facility, operated by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, is funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a group advancing the aviation industry’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by developing a clean, sustainable and alternative fuel supply.

“Research and innovation underpin the UAE’s ability to overcome environmental and social challenges, such as food and water security, while protecting our ecosystems, from our coastlines to our deserts,” said Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment.

Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment touring the new facility.

“This project will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence.”

Today, the UAE imports roughly 90 per cent of its food – at a cost, that if left unchecked, is predicted to increase 300 percent over the next decade. But the challenge of food security is also an unprecedented opportunity to advance ideas and innovations that are both sustainable and economically viable. The Masdar Institute, along with its partners, is doing just that.

“Energy, water and food security are key, interlinked needs for the UAE. Masdar Institute is committed to supporting the country’s strategic goals, and we are proud to be operating this research facility, which not only develops sustainable bioenergy and food to help fuel and diversify the UAE economy, but also serves as a training ground for a new generation of innovators,” said Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, interim provost of Masdar Institute, a graduate research-based university in Abu Dhabi, and a founding member of the SBRC.

Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment touring the new facility.

“This project reinforces Masdar City’s burgeoning ecosystem of innovation and strengthens its collaborative links between industry, academia and government,” said Dr Al Yousuf. “The cutting-edge bioenergy facility also provides an example of how collaboration produces real and valuable outcomes, and will thus inspire and attract further research to Abu Dhabi.”

Aquaculture – industrial fish or shellfish farming – is one of the world’s fastest expanding food sectors, with a current growth rate of about 6 percent a year. While aquaculture systems can reduce a nation’s dependence on foreign food and improve security, they pose environmental challenges due to the impact of nutrient-rich effluents flowing into the ocean. The SBRC tackles these concerns and is seeking to minimize the footprint of commercial farming practices.

“Aquaculture systems are here to stay,” said Dr Kevin Fitzsimmons, professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona and a globally recognized expert on aquaculture systems.

“As the planet’s population approaches 9 billion people, we must advance technologies that enable sustainable and manageable food production. The innovative facility in Abu Dhabi is a showcase of how cross-sector cooperation can lead to breakthrough research with the potential to deliver both food and aviation fuel – and do so in a sustainable, scalable way.”

The research facility uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilizes plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production. The salt-tolerant halophyte plants – whose commercial potential is relatively unexplored – thrive in arid, desert conditions and don’t require fresh water or arable land to grow. In the last step of the system, wastewater is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, further removing nutrients and providing valuable carbon storage, before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.

“As the global community moves toward global targets to reduce emissions, aviation too is doing its part and making great progress. Sustainable aviation biofuel is poised to play an important role in meeting the aggressive emission reduction goals industry has set,” said Marc Allen, president, Boeing International. It shows real promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies.”

Masdar Institute, together with Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP, were the founding members of SBRC. Takreer, the Abu Dhabi oil refining company, along with Safran and GE Aviation, have since joined the research group.

“The refinement and production of sustainable aviation biofuels complements our endeavors to meet the rapidly growing demand for jet fuels in the UAE. Under the guidance of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, we are geared up to provide research and technological assistance to this ambitious project,” said Takreer CEO Jasem Al Sayegh.

More than 2,000 commercial flights have used sustainable aviation biofuel blended with conventional petroleum since renewable jet fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.

“This breakthrough research places the UAE at the center of a global movement to advance technology that supports the sustainable production of food and bioenergy,” said James Hogan, Etihad Airways’ president and chief executive officer.

“The commercialization of aviation fuels – cleaner, superior-performing fuels – is a critical step toward balancing our industry’s dependency on fossil fuels, while also incubating innovation that may have profound global implications to address energy, water and food security.”

The goal of the research facility is to demonstrate the viability of an integrated bioenergy production system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up. If the technology proves viable at this smaller-scale, further expansion will continue with the ultimate ambition to scale up to a 200-hectare demonstration site.