The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has embarked on an ambitious aquaculture project that will enable it to produce biofuel in the desert. Abu Dhabi is a member of the United Arab Emirates and it is one of the world’s largest petroleum producers, and if you’re wondering why a nation awash in fossil fuel would be interested in producing biofuel under some of the worst possible conditions on the globe, there are two good reasons for that.
Previous CleanTechnica articles on this project:
Why Aquaculture In The Desert
As a member of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is interested in biofuel partly because the UAE needs biofuel in order to compete in the global air travel sector. The UAE established an airline, Etihad, in 2003 as part of a broader program to diversify the national economy. As the global airline industry transitions to biofuel, Etihad needs a secure supply chain of non-fossil fuel.
Food is the other key part of the equation. Abu Dhabi imports about 90% of its food, and planners anticipate that the already high cost of those imports will grow by 300% over the next 10 years unless something is done.
Aside from a drag on the economy, national security interests are not well served by such a heavy reliance on food imports.
Growing food in the desert is not impossible — didn’t Matt Damon just prove that on Mars? — so the main obstacle is cost. For a cost-effective aquaculture solution, Abu Dhabi has turned to its state-supported cleantech funding agency, Masdar, through its Masdar Institute technology school.
Masdar Institute is the anchor tenant for the urban sustainability showcase Masdar City, which CleanTechnica has visited as a guest of Masdar every January for the past few years. Only one of Masdar City’s 8 planned neighborhoods has been built out so far, leaving plenty of room to build an entire aquaculture and biofuel research center within the city limits, just a quick bike ride away from labs and other resources at the main campus (look at the photo up top and you can see the school and surrounding buildings in the background).
CleanTechnica discussed land use at Masdar City in a previous article, and the new aquaculture project is a perfect example of how city planners are deploying available space to foster innovative technologies.
The so-named Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium draws on brain power from Masdar Institute, Boeing, Honeywell UOP, Etihad, GE, and Safran, the French multinational aerospace company. Abu Dhabi’s national energy company ADNOC is involved at the refinery stage through its TAKREER branch.
The idea is to leap over the cost obstacle by developing a system for raising fish for food, and reclaiming fish waste to raise biofuel crops. The use of saltwater species eliminates the need (and high cost) of desalination. Similarly, the wastewater would be bioremediated in constructed wetlands, reducing treatment costs down to a fraction.
How Aquaculture In The Desert
Since Masdar City is an inland site, the two-hectare experimental aquaculture facility was built with saltwater trucked in from the coast. Within three to five years developers expect that they’ll have enough information to demonstrate proof of concept, at which point a full-scale 200-hectare facility will be constructed at the coast within handy reach of water.
SBRC officially launched the aquaculture experiment over the weekend, and its Director, Dr. Alejandro Rios, kindly provided CleanTechnica with some exclusive details and insights over the phone.
The new facility consists of six aquaculture ponds, eight agricultural fields for biofuel crops, and four swamp basins for wastewater remediation.
With seawater in mind, the project is designed around common, hardy salt tolerant species that are well known to researchers. The six ponds are divided among two for tilapia (that’s actually a freshwater fish, but it is known to be highly adaptable), two for white Indian shrimp, and two for a mix of both. Rios anticipates that the mixed pond will more closely mimic the multitrophic systems found in nature, and may therefore be more effective at warding off diseases and other threats to the health of the pond.
Nutrients from the ponds will go to cultivate various halophytes (that’s fancyspeak for salt tolerant plants), with a particular focus on a North American strain of Salicornia called Salicornia bigelovii. Known by the nickname dwarf saltwort, it grows throughout the south and east portions of the US and it has a cousin in the Middle East.
The basins or constructed wetlands are the final step in the process and they are “extremely important” to the entire concept, as Dr. Rios emphasized. They enable the aquaculture operation to proceed without the wastewater concerns that can plague commercial fish and shrimp farming. Mangroves were chosen for their extensive root system, enhancing natural filtration.
Dr. Rios also noted that mangrove roots function as “high-capacity carbon dioxide absorbers,” so the whole operation has the potential to be carbon-neutral.
The overall system is based on pairs of ponds, fields, and basins so that researchers can determine if there is a significant difference between low intensity aquaculture and a higher intensity version , in which more nutrients are added.
As for the Salicornia, the oil-rich seeds will be taken to a research facility and refinery run by TAKREER, to be refined into synthetic kerosene.
As described by Dr. Rios, the seed oil is very similar to crude oil but there are some differences that need to be worked out. One basic problem is that the seed oil is more “pure” than fossil oil, so it lacks the lubricants needed for commercial use. For now those are added from fossil sources, but Dr. Rios foresees that biobased lubricant additives will be used eventually.
Once TAKREER has the process down pat, refining will shift from the lab to a dedicated, commercial-scale facility.
To Boldly Go Where No Farmer Has Gone Before
The Masdar City visit provided CleanTechnica with a clear demonstration of Abu Dhabi’s strategy for growth in the 21st century, by leveraging three emerging resources: solar energy, saltwater, and brain power. Dr. Rios affirmed the importance of the brainpower angle for future growth:
The corollary implications are very important in other regions. This is not only about biofuel, it’s about how we use water and natural resources in a sustainable way.
This is about creating a completely different agriculture industry that doesn’t exist today, and it’s very much about food security. It is also about industry synergy from biomass production to refining, to consumption by local players. Etihad, for example, has ambitious plans for growth and they have to have a clear path to sustainability.
This is about knowledge creation. This is a new type of thinking in terms of integrating food and energy systems.
We’ll be sure to provide updates on the SBRC research as the data start coming in, so stay tuned.
Photo: via SBRC.