Masdar Institute Research Advancing UAE’s Strategic Innovation Needs
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has made significant strides in research and technology development in areas of interest to the UAE’s strategic goals over the past year as part of its commitment to supporting the country’s goal of transformation into one of the most innovative nations by 2021.
Dr. Behjat AlYousuf, Interim Provost, Masdar Institute, said: “As the nation celebrates Innovation Week across the emirates, I feel proud of the progress achieved by Masdar Institute over the last year. Our faculty and students have taken bold initiatives to seek out partnerships with industrial and academic experts and pursue dynamic research projects that are needed to generate solutions for pressing challenges, which will help not only the UAE achieve its innovation goals, but will help the entire region and wider world achieve a sustainable future.”
The Institute has recorded a number of gains in its innovation efforts, including the issuance of 8 patents in 2016 – providing a significant boost to the country’s share of novel intellectual property (IP) – 25 patent filings, and 25 invention disclosures. Some of these key innovations and breakthroughs in the fields of water and energy are being highlighted during the UAE’s second annual Innovation Week.
The National Innovation Strategy (NIS) was launched last year ahead of the inaugural Innovation Week to lead innovation in seven main sectors – including water, technology, energy, health, space, transportation and education – following which the Institute furthered its research and development (R&D) activities in these priority sectors, particularly water and energy, with an emphasis on developing novel solutions and insights with direct application to UAE industries.
The UAE has a long-standing focus on decreasing the energy cost of producing freshwater. As a water-scarce nation that relies on energy-intensive seawater desalination processes for nearly 40% of its potable water, finding ways to meet its growing freshwater needs sustainably is a top priority for the UAE.
One research project at Masdar Institute that has made internationally recognized progress in the effort to achieve energy-efficient desalination is being led by Dr. Linda Zou, Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. Her research team has discovered a novel, low-cost way to fabricate graphene-based membranes, which would require much less energy to remove salt ions from seawater than traditional polymeric-based membranes, which are susceptible to damage caused by high temperatures and the chemicals, such as chlorine, that are used to clean the membrane.
Graphene, on the other hand, which is a one-atom thick sheet of carbon known as the lightest, strongest, thinnest, and best heat- and electricity-conducting material ever discovered, has the potential to be a much more efficient membrane that would let water pass through relatively easy if perforated. The challenge, however, is that fabricating sheets of perforated graphene at a large enough scale for industrial application is expensive.
Dr. Zou’s graphene fabrication method – which is described in a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Membrane Science – employs a unique “bottom-up” approach, which involves layering many small graphene sheets together, in contrast to the more common and expensive “top-down approach”, which involves fabricating a single large graphene sheet and subsequently poking tiny holes in it. Dr. Zou’s novel “bottom-up” approach is more affordable, and in turn more easily scalable.
This area of research can help contribute to the UAE’s innovation and sustainability goals through the development of an advanced membrane material that could reduce the country’s energy demand and carbon footprint.
Reducing the environmental and monetary cost of traditional forms of power generation, such as fossil fuel-fired power plants, while still meeting society’s growing energy demands is a complex challenge that the UAE is confronting head on. It has set an ambitious goal of diversifying its energy mix, with 24% of its power generation capacity set to come from clean, renewable sources by 2021 to ensure long-term energy security and sustainability. In response to these needs a number of research projects at Masdar Institute are focused on leveraging renewable sources, like the sun, for more affordable and efficient clean energy power generation.
One such project is being led by Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering Dr. Khalid Askar. He is working with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Masdar Institute MSc student Nujood AlShehhi to develop highly-efficient solar cells that require minimal cleaning and maintenance, which would significantly increase a solar cell’s energy-to-electricity efficiency.
“Dust and dirt are the proverbial kryptonite to a solar panel’s ability to convert sunlight into electricity, drastically reducing a solar cell’s conversion efficiencies. Just four grams of dust per one square meter of a solar cell’s surface can reduce its energy output by 40%,” Dr. Askar explained.
To avoid losses caused by dirt and dust build-up on solar cells, Dr. Askar’s team is developing a “super coating” that when sprayed onto a solar panels’ surfaces, enables the solar cells to self-clean and self-heal. The spray coating is relatively affordable, and could be easily used to coat large, curved surfaces much faster and cheaper than conventional coating techniques. Their research was published earlier this year in the journal ACS Applied Material and Interface. The team has filed a patent application for their super coating research to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
With this research project and others, Masdar Institute is working to ensure that the UAE has a range of affordable and effective solutions to help it realize its innovative renewable energy goals.
While water and energy form the core of Masdar Institute’s research focus, advanced materials and systems engineering serve as their platform, facilitating the development of innovative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, new material systems and advanced sensors. Technology is a particularly broad and important priority sector, as technology links innovations across all key sectors.
Dr. Mihai Sanduleanu, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is heading several of the Institute’s leading technology-focused research projects. In his innovative transceiver research, his team, which includes MSc student Badreyya AlShehhi and PhD student Ademola Mustapha, is developing tiny wireless transceivers that can send and receive data while blending seamlessly into their surroundings and consuming very little power. The team has filed a patent with the USPTO for the novel transceivers, which will transmit data on the less crowded 120 gigahertz (GHz) radio spectrum. This type of next-generation transceiver technology will help speed up the anticipated internet-of-things (IoT) transformation.
IoT envisions being able to convert nearly every object in our daily lives into “smart” devices that are capable of transmitting and receiving data through internet-connected networks. Businesses and cities, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are already leveraging IoT systems to make smarter products and improve traffic, services and operational efficiencies. However, in order for the full potential of IoT systems to be realized, innovations in transceiver technologies – which are the sensors that collect and transmit all the data that IoT systems rely on – is crucial.
Another project being led by Dr. Sanduleanu, along with Dr. Mohamed Sassi , Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is a collaboration with the Takreer Research Center (TRC) – the R&D arm of the Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company (Takreer) – to develop smart sensors that can measure temperature, pressure and other key parameters in the reactors used for refinery operations. The research team expects the sensors can help significantly reduce Abu Dhabi’s oil refinery operating costs.
The sensors will achieve this by creating virtual maps with temperature, pressure and wettability attached to a location within the reactor – which is the vessel where crude oil is refined and converted into lighter, more usable hydrocarbon forms, such as petrol. This virtual map will not only help refinery operators better control the buildup of heat and pressure in the reactors, thus avoiding costly shut-downs and extending the lifetime of the catalysts, but it will also help them discover optimal operating parameters for a more efficient reactor. Making refinery operations more efficient and affordable will result in financial savings that the UAE can use to invest in other important sectors, like research and education.
These projects demonstrate the far-reaching technological, economic and social implications of the cutting-edge technology-based innovations being developed at Masdar Institute.
With plans to continually evolve and strengthen its strategic collaborations and industry-relevant R&D activities through a strategy that focuses on energy and water as key areas, underpinned by advanced materials and systems engineering, Masdar Institute is supporting the development of talented human capital and novel intellectual capital needed to fuel and sustain the UAE’s innovation goals.
News and Features Writer
27 November 2016