If you really want an indicator of just how close we are to a more sustainable energy future, take a look at what’s going on over at United Arab Emirates (UAE), deep in the heart of the world’s most notoriously prolific petroleum-exporting region. UAE’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has been talking up the potential for oil exporting states to transition out of dependency on petroleum and into a more diverse economic model based on exporting algae biofuel.
As to how the economics of algae biofuel production are supposed to work out in a region that has water scarcity built into its DNA, that’s a lesson that U.S. energy policymakers could learn from, too.
Regarding the economics of a successful algae biofuel export model, Masdar Institute’s algae biofuel research is focused on specialty fuels, namely aviation and jet fuel. Though that’s a relatively small market compared to ground transportation, global shipping is on an upward trend and there’s a reasonable expectation for that sector to keep growing.
The economic model would also take into account the potential for layering other high-value products such as pharmaceuticals and nutriceuticals onto the biofuel production process.
The ability of algae to grow in the UAE desert is a moot point, because native strains of algae already do grow in the region. The real question is whether or not it can be grown at scale for commercial biofuel production.
According Masdar professor Dr. Hector H. Hernandez, the prospects look promising partly because, as a native species, desert algae has hardy characteristics that lend itself to commercial scale production:
“The algae available in the UAE desert is unique because it is local to the UAE, and can stand a wide change in temperature. It can also live under high salinity ranges, one of the ‘highest’ to date of any algae species, and can be used throughout the year, offering a long harvesting season.”
Watering A Desert Biofuel Crop
Masdar’s experts make the point that, given these hardy characteristics, large-scale algae farming in the UAE could be conducted without impinging on fresh water supplies.
That still leaves open the potential for harmful impacts on marine environments, but the researchers don’t have ocean-based algae farms in mind. Instead, algae farms would be created on built infrastructure, located on non-habitable land in UAE’s western region.
As for where the water would come from, that’s practically a moot point, too. At least one large and growing man-made oasis has already popped up in the middle of rolling dunes about 150 miles inland, near the city of Al Ain.
The water is desalinated seawater from the Persian Gulf, which is pumped to Al Ain, used by the residents, flushed down the drains, treated, and then recycled for watering vegetation in the city. The excess water percolates into the ground, and it has surfaced nearby to form a lake.
Most likely, seawater would be pumped and treated specifically for algae farms. In the not too distant past those operations would depend on massive amounts of fuel, but that obstacle is rapidly fading away.
A new generation of fuel-efficient desalination technology has been entering the market, and the potential for powering part or all of the operation with solar energy looks promising. Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, Masdar, has already launched a high-efficiency solar powered desalination pilot project.
Lessons For U.S Biofuel Policy
UAE has a long way to go before it transitions into a biofuel export economy to any significant degree, but it’s clear that the combination of peak oil and climate change has given rise to some vigorous public policy planning in that state. The focus is pivoting toward a future in which petroleum resources still count for something, but not for much compared to the country’s vast water, solar energy and aquaculture resources.
There is a lot of takeaway here for the U.S., and in fact the Obama Administration has already propelled this country in a similar direction.
On the broad issue of biofuels, the Administration has already partnered the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior and Defense (specifically, the Navy) in a coordinated effort to develop a robust domestic biofuel industry.
The Administration’s biofuel initiatives have a strong thrust toward encouraging sustainable economic development in rural communities, which could have the added benefit of relieving rural property owners in some regions from the financial pressure to sell or lease their land for fossil fuel development, namely fracking.
For algae biofuel specifically, the Administration has been establishing a network of national algae biofuel research centers, with flagship locations in Arizona and Texas.
The Navy’s role in all this is to help jumpstart the domestic consumer market for algae biofuel and other biofuels, by serving as a high performance test bed and an eager customer through its Great Green Fleet initiative. Though Republican leadership in Congress has repeatedly tried to torpedo the Navy’s biofuel initiatives with legislative roadblocks, various research projects and public-private agreements have enabled the military’s biofuel efforts to progress.
It’s pretty clear that from the Administration’s perspective, a strong domestic biofuel industry, including algae biofuel, is going to play an essential role the ability of the U.S. to compete globally. That strategy seems likely to carry forward with new MIT professor Ernest J. Moniz set to helm the Energy Department.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.