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World’s first desert food and fuel research facility inaugurated

A potentially game-changing project, to produce food and aviation fuel in the desert irrigated by seawater, has been launched at a two-hectare (ha) site in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). If the technology proves viable the plan is to scale up to a 200-ha demonstration site.

The facility is operated by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate research-based university in Abu Dhabi and, as reported in Bioenergy International 2-2014, funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC). The SBRC is an industry stakeholder group founded by Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, Boeing, Takreer, Safran, Honeywell UOP and GE Aviation to develop 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. This project will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence, stated HE Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment in his inauguration address.

SBRC officials and guests planting mangrove sapplings at the new SEAS pilot facility. Mohammed Al Ghailani (left), student at Masdar Institute, Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, Interim Provost, Masdar Institute and HE Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment (both guiding the spade) and Dr Alejandro Rios Galvan, SBRC Director. (Below) A first worldwide, the project pumps seawater into fish ponds and the effluent from the fishfarm is then used to irrigate the halophyte fields before is transferred to mangrove swamps.

SBRC officials and guests planting mangrove sapplings at the new SEAS pilot facility. Mohammed Al Ghailani (left), student at Masdar Institute, Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, Interim Provost, Masdar Institute and HE Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment (both guiding the spade) and Dr Alejandro Rios Galvan, SBRC Director.

Food security a driver

The UAE currently imports roughly 90 percent of its food needs – at a cost that if left unchecked, is forecasted to increase 300 percent over the next decade.

– 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.

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.

Wastewater treatment

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.

– Aquaculture systems are here to stay. 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, said Dr Kevin Fitzsimmons, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, USA and a globally recognized expert on aquaculture systems.

Text: Martina Sumenjak Sabol

Photos & illustration courtesy Masdar Institute of Science & Technology

5218/AS

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