The Gulf region is certainly rife with ambition: In addition to the audacious architecture emerging in its cities, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are competing to build the world’s largest airports — which means far more demand for aviation fuel. Meanwhile the vast majority of food consumed here is imported, meaning more investments to ensure food security that critics say are not much more than a land grab.
The fact this region has one of the world’s hottest and harshest climates has not stopped its rapid growth, in turn bringing up countless questions about the Middle East’s long-term sustainability. Add the questions of water with its demands for more desalination while aquifers have become depleted, and the future with more people and demand for resources does not look too promising. With 97 percent of the world’s water in oceans and 20 percent of its land desert, other countries will have to face this same dilemma.
But what if it were possible to grow food sustainably in the desert while creating aviation biofuels? A pilot project to launch later this year in Masdar City was announced yesterday at a press conference during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.
The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), an initiative of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, has announced what it says will be the world’s first bioenergy pilot project to use desert land, irrigated by seawater, to produce both food and energy.
According to its current plan, the project will be constructed later this year in two hectares (5 acres) of undeveloped land in Masdar City. First, seawater will be pumped into ponds that will grow shrimp and fish — addressing a reality that aquaculture has a future meeting the world’s growing demand for protein while acknowledging its waste has become a worldwide environmental headache. Next, waste from raising that fish and shrimp will then flow into fields of halophyte plants and be used as fertilizer. The project’s partners, which include Boeing, have focused on halophytes because they are native to the region, have demonstrated potential as a renewable source for aviation biofuels and can thrive while growing water of high salinity (necessary as the seawater here is saltier than in other regions across the world).
Third, researchers will then harvest the biomass and oils from the halophytes and process it into biofuels. It’s important to remember that this is a small-scale project: Each hectare can produce about two tons of seeds, which will have about a 30 percent oil content. So, we are not close to fueling transoceanic flights, even with a 5 percent biofuel-to-conventional fuel blend. But in a region that has to prepare for a world with diminishing petroleum supplies while coping with food security, this project is a start.
Finally, effluent from the previous steps will be discharged into cultivated mangroves, which have long served has a natural barrier in the Abu Dhabi area between land and sea. Mangroves have long served as a carbon sink as they filter out nutrients from polluting the Gulf. Unfortunately, development has destroyed many of these mangroves, so this project could also serve as a wake-up call to restore one of the natural wonders of this region.
Biofuels have been proven to reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent compared to conventionally-produced sources of aviation fuels, but questions of scale and the food-versus-fuel debate have been a barrier to wider use. If this project in Masdar City can work outside of the laboratory phase, expand and become commercially viable, the SBRC project could be a huge step forward for sustainable development, food security and renewable energy generation in the Gulf region.
Image credits: Leon Kaye
Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Disclosure: Masdar covered Leon Kaye’s travel costs to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.