Climatic Conditions Make Abu Dhabi Ideal for Commercial Production of Biofuels from Algae

Masdar Institute Faculty Gathers Interdisciplinary Team to Conduct Research in Biomass-Derived Fuels

Abu Dhabi-UAE: 30 October, 2012 – Abu Dhabi’s abundant sunshine and climate make it a near-ideal location for growing algae for commercial production of biofuels. Such unique geographic and climatic conditions further enhance the opportunity for the Emirate to become a leading developer of clean and sustainable technologies.

An interdisciplinary research team assembled by Dr Hector H. Hernandez, Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, is currently undertaking an algae research project. The team uses a holistic approach to the development of a research program that covers all the individual pieces of the algae research project. These include isolation and characterization of the algae, genetic engineering of the algae for specific products, large scale growth facilities design and implementation, bio-refinery design for fuel and other valuable products, as well as technoeconomic analysis of the whole process chain.

Says Dr. Hernandez: “Masdar Institute is unique in the algae research project in that it comprises both experienced faculty and students in the project team. Currently we have six students and the team will grow over the next year up to 12 – 13 students, both at the Master’s and higher levels. We are actively searching for local and international entities who are interested in the development of the algae research projects and to support the incoming graduate students.”

With a strategic objective to become one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy research, development and implementation, Abu Dhabi is leveraging its substantial resources and experience in global energy markets into the technologies of the future. The Masdar Initiative was launched to provide a platform for research and development, seeking solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues – sustainable energy resources, climate change and human capital building. Serving as a key pillar of innovation and human capital, Masdar Institute remains fundamental to the multifaceted renewable energy company Masdar’s core objectives of developing Abu Dhabi’s knowledge economy and finding solutions to humanity’s toughest challenges such as climate change. Development of sustainable sources of energy from renewable resources – including biofuels derived from renewable biomass – is a cornerstone of this energy strategy.

The scenario looks promising, considering the advantages. For example, non-arable lands, which are abundant in the UAE, can be used for growing algae to obtain bio-fuelsIn addition, native algae can use non-potable sources of water, such as brackish groundwater, wastewater, or seawater for growth. Even in the scale-up process, these unique strains will not require fresh potable water.

While there is no possibility for a ‘food-vs.-fuel’ competition, there is adequate potential for integrating algae growth with aquaculture and water treatment facilities for waste-water remediation. Also, algae can be a significant carbon-neutral source for ‘green’ fuels including green diesel, jet fuel, biogas and ethanol.In addition, algae has the potential to produce valuable nutraceutical and pharmaceutical materials as co-products. Moreover, there is the capacity to use the left-over algae fraction that is not used in biofuels production as nutritional supplements and organic fertilizer for the agricultural sector. Algae also have an untapped market in cosmetics with sustainable products from algae providing significant components of natural cosmetics.

It is no wonder then that there is not much skepticism about their commercial viability. Dr. Hernandez insists that there is commercial scope for the outcome of such a project. And of course, his conviction is based on statistics.

There is a large international market that is looking for biomass-derived fuels to help meet their renewable energy goals. Take for example Europe. Germany has set a target of 45% for energy to be obtained from renewable sources. With the recent abandoning of nuclear energy as part of the renewable energy mix, this move has opened a large market for energy from biomass. The European Union (EU) has also declared that it is looking for energy products derived from biomass that do not compete with food crops. There is a growing market for aviation biofuels within the UAE due to the newly-implemented ‘carbon tax’ on jetliners landing in Europe that carry jet fuel derived from petroleum.

Recently, China announced a US$100 million business deal with an algae company in Australia to provide them with the knowhow for producing biofuels from algae. According to new SBI Energy research, private sector investments, regulatory support and strategic partnerships are driving commercial production of biofuels derived from algae that will expand to US$1.6 billion by 2015. Such prospects induce researchers to focus on algae.

There are additional benefits as well. Biologically derived fuels can supplement fossil fuels and other fossil fuel-derived materials. Not only is there benefit to the energy market, but there is also potential to provide the building blocks needed for plastics, nutritional, and pharmaceutical markets. More importantly, fuels produced from the algae biomass can be used in the current fuel infrastructure as a direct substitute for diesel or jet fuel. That sounds promising to some of the diesel fuel markets in the largest emerging economies such as India and China.

Adds Dr. Hernandez: “At Masdar Institute, we are developing novel strategies for the use of algae-derived biomass for energy and other commercially relevant molecules. We have an internationally recognized team of scientists, such as Dr. Robert M. Baldwin and Dr. Jens Ejbye Schmidt, Professors in the Chemical Engineering Program, working to develop new chemical processes for industrial scale up and treating of the algae biomass. Their contributions to the field will place Masdar Institute at the forefront of industrial biomass processing.”

There has been great progress made in the first year of the algae research project at Masdar Institute. The current students presented two posters at international conferences earlier during summer and they are scheduled to present two more posters by the end of this year. This is quite an accomplishment for such a young research program.

Indications are that biofuels will be widely used in the near future.

For more information on the algae research project, visit http://algae.labs.masdar.ac.ae

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