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Ground-Breaking Research Demonstrates Masdar Institute’s Commitment to the UAE’s Innovation Goals

Abu Dhabi-UAE: 15 March, 2015  ̶   The announcement by UAE president His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan declaring 2015 the UAE’s ‘Year of Innovation’ has placed innovations at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology directly in the spotlight.  A number of these projects hold great promise for tackling some of the UAE’s sustainable challenges in very creative ways, including the use of next-generation desalination technology, monitoring of coastal habitats, water saving at mosques, using palm frond waste for agriculture, creating biofuel from microalgae, improving robot interactions, optimizing electricity in the UAE, bringing daylight into workspaces and the invention of new solar cells.

These research projects display the commitment by faculty and students to the ‘Year of Innovation’ and the provision of solutions to sustainability issues. Masdar Institute is an independent, research-driven graduate-level university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies, which has, for the past six years, worked to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the UAE. The research and development foci of the Institute continues to develop the knowledge capital of the UAE, which has enabled the Institute to deliver sustainable solutions for many sectors including water, energy and food.
Water scarcity is a challenge in the UAE due to the country’s low natural freshwater resources and high consumption rates. Masdar Institute’s research is attempting to address some of the country’s water scarcity issues with research that aims to improve the desalination technology that turns seawater into freshwater. One such project, led by Dr. Shadi Hassan, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, is focused on identifying innovative desalination techniques for water.

Sahar Daer, a student involved in the project explains, “The main objective of our project is to investigate the potential use of Forward Osmosis (FO) as an emerging technology in the field of water desalination in the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s seawater is of both high salinity and high temperature, which enables us to experiment the use of this FO technology in harsh conditions.”

The research team believes that the use of FO as a desalination technique over traditional methods such as thermal distillation and membrane technology will prove beneficial to the UAE by providing ultra-pure freshwater through a more energy efficient process. This water desalination technique has the potential to help meet the increasing water demands of Abu Dhabi that have resulted from population growth and urban development.

And to ensure the UAE is able to securely and sustainably run its coastal desalination plants, another research project looks to enhance the UAE’s marine coastal resource management. The Arabian Gulf is the source of large volumes of economic, transportation, and tourism related activities for the UAE. These activities are vulnerable to a number of hazards such as toxic algae blooms called ‘red tides’ and oil spills, which then threaten country’s desalination operations and the fishing industry.

To help prevent and combat these events, Dr. Marouane Temimi, Associate Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Masdar Institute, is currently leading students in a research project that will monitor and forecast coastal hazards. Its aim is to provide accurate results that give operators and managers of coastal facilities appropriate lead-time to plan for and address these potential hazards.

“Our project aims to combine high-resolution satellite data with 3D models of ocean currents to monitor and ultimately forecast water circulation and quality in the Arabian Gulf. We conduct this monitoring in real-time in order to quickly detect and forecast red tide outbreaks, oil spills and other hazards along the UAE’s coastline. The benefits of this forecasting system include a reduction in the disruption of the fishing, desalination and other coastal industries, and the reduction of health risks associated with these coastal threats and hazards,” Dr. Temimi adds.

To help reduce the wastage of the UAE’s precious water resources, Dr. Ahmed Aljaberi, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and Mohamed Al Musharrekh, a PhD student, have developed a water-saving device for mosques. This sustainable device can help reduce water wastage by informing users how much water they have used while performing their pre-prayer ablution. The device displays levels for water usage and can easily be attached to mosques’ water features to alert users of their water consumption and waste.

According to Al Musharrekh, “The guideline of using only half a liter of water for ablution is widely ignored by the public. This is caused, in part, by the fixtures currently in use in mosques, which allow for most of the water to be wasted. According to our estimates, we believe that this easily fitted fixture could reduce the water usage in mosques around the UAE by at least 90%, promising greater savings.”

Another area of research of relevance to the UAE’s strategic goals and future prosperity is the management of waste. The Abu Dhabi Center of Waste Management estimates that 33,000 tons of waste are generated in the emirate every day. The UAE has a goal of diverting 80% of its waste from landfills by 2018. To help address this situation, Masdar Institute faculty and students have innovated a number of methods that can utilize waste for gain.

Dr. Lina F. Yousef, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, is leading a group of students in related research focused on using waste to improve soil in the UAE to enhance agricultural productivity. On average, more than 450 thousand tons of palm frond waste are transported to landfills in Abu Dhabi per year. The Sustainable Soil and Environmental Micro Lab at Masdar Institute is currently developing a unique set of carbon formulations to utilize this waste, turning it into a fertilizer that can improve soil properties so that the UAE can support more agriculture. This project aims to improve a number of soil qualities that are known to limit agricultural production in arid climates, such as water retention and use efficiency. The end goal of this project is to increase food security and sustainable resource management in the UAE.

Dr. Yousef explains that, “We have identified a number of potential benefits resulting from the transformation of this palm frond waste into useful carbon formulations including a reduction of waste transport to landfills, a reduction in water consumption, a reduction in soil erosion, the sequestration of carbon, the ability to combat desertification and the creation of a process by which waste can be transformed into a commodity, which will benefit the emirate. It will also help to address important food security issues, particularly in arid regions, which will not only benefit the UAE but also other dry regions around the world that struggle with food production.”

Masdar Institute is further exploring the potential of turning organic material into valuable products through a number of other projects. One research project is investigating species of microalgae to help address water, food and energy challenges in the UAE. Dr. Hector Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, has identified microalgae that can be cultivated in the UAE without the use of freshwater or arable land. If cultivated and classed as a plant, this microalgae would be considered the fastest growing plant with the highest oil yield per unit area, producing vast quantities of high potential crop with many uses.
“The microalgae cultivated could be used to produce biofuels such as biodiesel and jet fuel, reducing the need for fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with these fuels,” Dr. Hernandez says.

Dr. Hernandez and his students have helped identify further uses for this microalgae, as animal feed, food for human consumption, and to produce bio-chemicals for use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Students and faculty at Masdar Institute are also researching and developing intelligent robots that can better interact with humans in a number of the UAE’s important sectors, including health and energy, which are two sectors targeted in the UAE Innovation Strategy. Robots play an important role in many industries when it is either unsafe, inefficient or costly to use a person – like deep-sea drilling, bomb-disposal, and automobile assembly. As technology has developed, the use of these intelligent robots has increased. Dr. Jacob Crandall, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is currently leading a project that aims to enhance the ability of robots to work with humans in a more effective manner.

Dr. Crandall explains, “The aim of our project is to create robots that learn to establish long-term relationships with people. Robots must be able to fully interact with humans in order to gain acceptance and wider use in industrial sectors. By developing algorithms and interaction methodologies, we were able to develop a robot capable of cooperating with humans. We hope that the success of this project will ensure that robots can be further utilized in many different industries.”

Stable, secure and affordable electricity supply is critical to economic productivity and maintaining the high quality of life UAE residents have come to expect. Through its research, the Institute is looking to sustainably enhance the UAE’s electricity sector. Dr. Sameh El Khatib, Assistant Professor, Engineering Systems and Management, is leading a project looking to improve energy security in the UAE while maintaining sustainable economic growth.

“This project analyzes a number of areas in the UAE electricity value chain. The project then used this analysis to quantify the potential national wealth savings the UAE could achieve from primary energy extraction to end-use through the provision of technology interventions that could help reduce the net energy demand for power generation. The benefits include a lower carbon footprint, with cost savings and the delivery of greater energy security for the UAE,” Dr. El Khatib says.

He hopes his project will pave the way for national energy policy recommendations and implementation plans that facilitate a sustainable energy system in the UAE.

In a hot climate like that of the UAE, there is always a need to improve energy efficiency in buildings. An optical switch device developed by Masdar Institute in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims to help address that need. Dr. Kumar Shanmugam, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is leading a number students from Masdar Institute in the project and after extensive research and development, the team has printed a prototype of an Optical Switch using a multi-material 3D printer at the Institute. The Optical Switch is a device that dynamically distributes daylight and minimizes glare and heat on a building.

Explaining the benefits of the device Dr. Shanmugam says, “We have developed the Optical Switch to provide an energy efficient solution for workspaces and buildings so to distribute daylight and minimize glare from sunlight. This provides occupants with a better quality of space and health, while increasing the energy efficiency and sustainability of the building. Utilizing smart devices like the Optical Switch in the UAE’s buildings can reduce their cooling demand and electricity consumption.”

With the UAE’s goal of achieving 7% renewable energy production by 2030, developing renewable energy technologies that suit the UAE’s needs is also of great importance. One project looking to address that need is a project led by Dr. Ammar Nayfeh, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Dr. Nayfeh and his research team have designed a unique solar cell to improve the energy optimization and flexibility of solar panels.

“In the PV industry there is high demand for a low-cost, high efficiency tandem solar cells. As a result we invented a ‘step-cell,’ which in a tandem cell system exposes some parts of the bottom silicon cell to direct sunlight, increasing the current in the bottom cell. When the bottom cell is optimized, the overall current and efficiency increase, ensuring that more energy is produced from the cell,” Dr. Nayfeh says.

The ‘step-cell’ design also allows for a more flexible top cell material selection when producing the device, which would lead to lower production costs without a significant loss in overall tandem cell efficiency. Integrating this unique cell in the UAE’s solar panels could help the country utilize more the available solar energy in an efficient and affordable manner.

These projects were on display at Masdar Institute’s Innovation Zone during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2015 and reveal just a snapshot of the wide range of innovative research underway at Masdar Institute. With their focus on providing solutions to local and real-world problems, they aim to provide valuable intellectual and human capital for the UAE’s future knowledge economy while helping the country reach its own strategic development target

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