Biofuels Masdar report outlines algae biofuel potential in UAE

Published on March 9th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Algae Biofuel Could Make UAE Deserts Bloom

March 9th, 2013 by  

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.

Masdar report outlines algae biofuel potential in UAEAlgae Biofuel According To The Masdar Institute

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.

Image (cropped): UAE desert by      

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • “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”

    I sure hope not! I want our government to put it into solar, wind, and HVDC power lines. Technologies that are ready to give our country immediate long lasting dividends. Not subsidies to technologies like biofuel that will never pay off.

    • Tina Casey

      Ivor, thanks for bringing up those other points. Solar, wind and transmission are also the focus of federal support, and it seems likely that in the future, the role of liquid fuels will be relatively small compared to electricity (including advanced energy storage and fuel cells). However, liquid fuel will still be important in the foreseeable future and algae presents a promising opportunity to get it without the risks of gas and oil drilling. Compared to other biofuel crops algae also offers the potential for less impact on other croplands, natural habitats and water resources.

      • Thank you for your feedback Tina. I also see the need for liquid fuels however I have a different take on the future. I think solar and wind will continue growing at about 30% per year. Sure it could grow much faster like in China but still 30% is breathtaking. Within a single generation all our electrical needs will be met with solar and wind. Yet wind and solar will continue to grow. The continued growth which there will be plenty of will be used for the production of liquid fuels. Our current dirty liquid fuels will easily last until they are priced out of the market.

        All of this can best be done by eliminating all subsides. Especially the hidden ones. Let the economics make us a clean renewable society. The longer we let government subsidize the energy sector the longer we will have fossil and nuclear. If biofuel can compete with no subsidies then I’m for it.

        • You have to think about this, I have been researching about algae oil for fuel for months.
          EV doesn’t t really work in northern Canada winters, -35c weather, no electric vehicle would last long and it would take over a hundred years for every buy EV’s and we don’t even have 100 years. New EV stations and whole new cars will be highly expensive and using algae oil for fuel, no engines will be remodelled, no damage to the ecosystems like what dirty oil and gas does ( my uncle has a farm and the gas rig is causing cancers in his cows)
          If you think algae oil for fuel is a bad idea, en we would keep pumping oil out of the ground and the only clean energy to stop it, is algae oil, please wide open you mind, if we don’t jump start and quickly grow this stuff, more oil spills will cause soo much damage to food sources.
          Yes, solar, wind and geothermal is important, but it will NOT replace dirty oil, please think about the northern climate.

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