New Materials for a New World

September 21, 2018

Development and advancement of the UAE’s innovation ecosystem is getting some special help with special materials being developed through Masdar Institute’s materials science and engineering research, which will soon be further boosted with the help new lab facilities.

Materials science and engineering is the study and development of materials and their properties for various industrial and technological applications. It is an interdisciplinary subject that is central to many of the UAE’s strategic goals, including stimulating innovation in the key sectors of renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space, as targeted in the National Innovation Strategy.

In recognition of the continuing and increasing importance of materials science and engineering to the UAE’s national and economic ambitions, Masdar Institute is evolving and expanding its materials science research capabilities and activities.

“Masdar Institute has a strong materials science academic and research program, with 31 students, of which 10 are in our PhD program, and nine faculty. Advanced materials and nanotechnology are at the core of the research being done across all of the Masdar Institute Research Centers (iCenters) to address a number of the UAE’s innovation needs,” explained Dr. Steve Griffiths, Executive Director of the Office of Institute Initiatives at Masdar Institute.

A new Materials Characterization and Synthesis Lab is due to come online in the coming weeks to further enhance Masdar Institute’s materials science research capability. Adding to the existing materials fabrication and characterization facility, which features inkjet printers that allow materials to be stacked, processed, and patterned, and the electron microscopy facility, which allows for the examination of materials and at a nano-scale, the new lab will allow Masdar Institute to grow new materials and characterize their thermal and mechanical properties.

“Most technological advancements are touched on by materials science. Building on our current ability to develop and characterize novel materials, the new lab takes Masdar Institute’s material science and engineering capabilities to an additional level with specialized materials synthesis and characterization,” explained Mike Tiner, Director of Labs at Masdar Institute.


In order to achieve greater sustainability and reduce carbon emissions, there’s a global need to enhance energy savings and efficiency, and energy storage.

One such project is looking to address the UAE’s need to improve the energy efficiency of its buildings. Cooling demand currently represents over 40% of annual and 60% of peak-day electricity use in Abu Dhabi, which is why it is important to reduce the amount of energy needed to comfortably cool building users.

Dr. Kumar Shanmugam, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is leading Masdar Institute’s collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop an Optical Switch device that can dynamically distribute daylight and minimize glare and heat on a building. The prototype, which was also part of Masdar Institute MSc student Johannes Liljenhjerte’s thesis research, has been made using a multi-material 3D printer at the Institute.

Explaining the benefits of the device Dr. Shanmugam said, “Drawing inspiration from the design of blinds commonly used in windows to block or shine light, we 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. Our new design also has the significant advantage that it has no moving parts and can therefore be readily miniaturized. Utilizing smart devices like the Optical Switch in the UAE’s buildings can reduce their cooling demand and electricity consumption.”

Dr. Nicolas Calvet, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is leading a material science and engineering research project with Masdar Institute MSc student Kholoud Alnuaimi, which is exploring the possibility of using waste metal produced by the aluminum and steel industries to store thermal energy.

Waste produced during aluminum and steel manufacturing has the potential to serve as a low-cost, high-temperature thermal storage media, capable of storing solar thermal energy up to 1000°C for 24/7 power generation. Dr. Calvet’s research has found that waste metals can become an energy storage material for concentrating solar power plants, solving two problems at once – energy storage and waste management.

Dr. Daniel Choi, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Head of the Masdar Institute Department of Materials and Mechanical Engineering, is another faculty member applying the materials science discipline to solving a key energy challenge.

Working with Masdar Institute MSc student Maarten Vander Geest, Dr. Choi is working to find materials science solutions to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries that power most electronic devices today.

Their research investigates the challenges of using lithium iron phosphate as a lithium source in the batteries. They have found that lithium iron phosphate nanowires can be synthesized, which can help solve the conductivity and kinetics problems associated with the material. This research can help contribute to the development of cheaper and more environmentally friendly lithium ion batteries.

“Our Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) Program continues to pursue excellence in probing for new and significant scientific discoveries that can be translated into tangible social benefits adopting fundamental and applied research to develop advanced concepts and functional materials for renewable energy, including PV and fuel cells, energy storage, catalysis, desalination, and water reuse applications. Such activities are clearly reflected in UAE’s recent innovation goals,” Dr. Choi said.

In an effort to bring technical expertise and human capital to the UAE and the region, Masdar Institute recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to collaborate on research in the field of energy storage devices and nano-materials with the Korea Basic Science Institute (KBSI) – a leader in nanoscience research in the fields of energy storage devices, memory devices, and the recovery of rare earth metals. The two institutions will drive innovations in these two areas and will organize joint knowledge sharing sessions, joint studies, research projects and training activities.

“Innovations for energy storage are critically important to the practical implementation of sustainable energy solutions in the UAE. Research into nanomaterials plays a crucial role in delivering the next generation of energy storage technology, and this collaboration with the Korea Basic Science Institute will help to propel this field of research forward,” Dr. Fred Moavenzadeh, President, Masdar Institute, said at the MoU signing.

The agreement covers collaboration on synthesizing and studying nanostructured novel energy storage materials, functionalizing nanostructured materials and electrochemical characterization of energy storage devices, and fabricating graphene/graphene oxide for energy storage. The goal is to develop new technologies for nanostructured materials production using novel fabrication techniques.

Water is not only one of the UAE’s targeted National Innovation Strategy sectors, but it is also a critical regional need due to scarcity of natural freshwater resources. Desalination provides 37% of the UAE’s water demand, which is mostly used for industrial and domestic consumption, and reclaimed water provides a further 12% for landscaping irrigation

To enhance water treatment technologies, Masdar Institute has partnered with Lockheed Martin and Masdar to develop a novel water purifying membrane made Perforene™, a material patented by Lockheed Martin. Perforene acts as a molecular filtration solution, which can help meet the growing global demand for potable water and also treat water used in oil and gas wells and in the medical domain by filtering out chemicals, compounds and proteins.

The main objective of the collaboration is to bring this patented molecular filtration membrane to market. Masdar Institute, with its expertise in materials science and engineering and water and environment research, will be helping answer the technical questions raised in the technology-to-market plan.

Masdar Institute is also leveraging its water-treatment membrane expertise in a collaboration with three leading advanced energy and clean technology corporations focused on supporting the development of a solar-powered full-scale seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant in the UAE.

Collaborators include Masdar, Laborelec, an international research center and technical service provider that specializes in electrical power technology and sustainable energy whose main shareholder is GDF Suez; and Degrémont, a water treatment and services provider dedicated to finding sustainable water management solutions.

The research collaboration focuses on selecting the most practical and economical photovoltaic (PV) cells and solar thermal energy technologies to supply a full-scale SWRO with locally produced renewable energy.

There are a number of materials that are currently being explored for their wide range of applications and innovative potential.

Graphene is one of materials science’s most exciting new prospects. Made of a single layer of carbon atoms, its unique structure featuring a repeating hexagon pattern lends it some very valuable thermal, electrical and mechanical characteristics. It is the thinnest, lightest, strongest material known and is the best conductor of heat at room temperature and also the best conductor of electricity. These characteristics result in a material that has the power to transform electronics, computing and many other technologies.

Masdar Institute is specifically looking to capitalize on the potential of graphene through a collaboration agreement with the institute credited with discovering the material – the University of Manchester. The two institutes are building a research collaboration partnership agreement in graphene and other related 2D materials that will be discussed and advanced at the ‘Partnering to Achieve Innovation in Defense & Aerospace (PAIDA) Working Group,’ to be held on May 20.

The collaborative research program between Masdar Institute and the University of Manchester is being structured as an industrial consortium and focuses on “pre-competitive” research in graphene and related 2D materials for sensors, membranes and composites for the aerospace, defense and energy applications. Research will initially take place within the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester as well as at Masdar Institute. Research from the collaboration is intended to transfer to the recently announced Graphene Engineering Innovation Center (GEIC) at the University of Manchester for commercialization. The £60m GEIC is planned to open in 2017 and is being established with £30m of funding from Masdar.

Graphene’s vast potential is already being leveraged in a number of research projects at Masdar Institute. Dr. Amal Al Ghaferi, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Dr. Irfan Saadat, Professor of Electrical Engineering, are working together to use graphene to help solve an efficiency and cost problem in the oil and gas sector.

They are using graphene and carbon nanotubes to develop sensors for deployment in oil and gas pipelines to detect and monitor the build-up of scaling or impurities inside gas and oil pipelines. Graphene and carbon nanotubes were used to make the scale sensors that can prevent blockage of pipes and other flow assurance problems by providing an efficient method of detecting scale that is a vast improvement over the disruptive practice of manual pipe inspection. The research, which is part of a collaboration with ADNOC and the Petroleum Institute, has the potential to improve the operational efficiency of the UAE’s oil and gas industry, which is a vital pillar of the economy.

“Given graphene is a 2D material (with a single layer of carbon atoms) it has very unique properties that are not available in typical bulk-3D materials. These include highly conductive, very strong and transparent. They also are inert and chemically and thermally stable, which opens a wider window for challenging environment applications,” Dr. Saadat explained..

Cellulose is another promising material that is yielding exciting innovations. Dr. Raed Hashaikeh, associate professor of materials science and engineering, is leading research at Masdar Institute that is applying the special properties of this plant derivative to a range of technological challenges. His team, which includes two UAE National MSc students Maitha Al Kaabi and Azza Al Raisi, has enhanced cellulose’s key properties of mechanical strength and chemical stability to produce a new, harder type of cellulose, known as ‘networked cellulose’, which has resulted in a number of significant breakthroughs.

“It was noticed that, when dried, the networked cellulose material shrank in volume, but maintained its integrity and shape, and actually became harder as it shrank. That’s when we realized that networked cellulose has a higher level of hardness compared to normal cellulose,” Dr. Hashaikeh explained.

One such breakthrough leverages cellulose’s strength and stability to create a solid electrolyte for lithium-ion batteries. The gel and liquid electrolytes commonly used in lithium-ion batteries are unstable at higher temperatures, highly flammable and known to leak, posing a major safety concerns in lithium-ion batteries. The solid electrolyte Dr. Hashaikeh’s team has developed offers greater stability and safety, resulting in a more robust battery that can be used for storing solar energy produced by photovoltaic cells, or for powering laptops and mobile phones. A patent has been filed for this solid polymer electrolyte, which is pending. In fact, a significant portion of Masdar Institute’s nearly 100 invention disclosures, which are a precursor stage for full patenting, are based on materials science and engineering.


Renewable energy is one of Masdar Institute’s key focus areas and is a critical need for dealing with the challenges of global climate change for all countries. Materials science and engineering has been integral in making renewable energy technologies more efficient and affordable, and has the potential to achieve even greater performance and affordability.

Dr. Calvet is studying the potential of a new, cheaper, and more energy efficient material for use in the thermal energy storage (TES) systems that store the energy captured by concentrated solar power (CSP) plants.

He wants to use sand in place of molten salts that are used to store solar energy in many TES systems. His research into the material properties of sand has found that it has a far higher thermal energy storage potential than molten salts – 1000°C, against molten salts’ 600°C – which means it can provide hotter steam to power the turbines that produce electricity.

“This technology, once perfected, should provide the UAE’s solar ambitions with an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to store energy for 24/7 CSP plants. It can also later be adapted to other industrial processes, such as steel making, that produce waste heat that could be used to heat the sand – and thus reduce the net energy use of these facilities,” Dr. Calvet said.

Dr. Ammar Nayfeh, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is also exploring the potential of materials to solve renewable energy challenges. He is part of a research team, including Masdar Institute MSc student Sabina Abdul Hadi, that has used advanced materials to design a unique tandem solar cell with high efficiency and modest concentration of sunlight.

Leveraging the material properties of gallium arsenide and silicon, they developed a flexible ‘step-cell’ design that allows for more of the sun’s energy to be utilized. It incorporates a more flexible top cell material, which would lead to lower production costs without a significant loss in overall tandem cell efficiency. High efficiency solar cells such as this are important for space applications and therefore highly relevant to the UAE’s emerging space industry. His research can help the UAE achieve its near-term goals for locally developed space technologies and longer-term goal of generating 7% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.


Materials science also offers significant benefits to various industries of strategic relevance to the UAE, providing reduced operational cost, energy savings, competitive advantage and enhanced performance. In the UAE’s oil industry, such benefits result in larger amounts of gasoline produced at a lower cost, as indicated by another one of Dr. Hashaikeh’s dynamic materials science research projects, which is investigating zeolites.

Zeolites are minerals whose porous and open structure are ideal for catalytic reactions that break large hydrocarbon molecules into gasoline and other petroleum byproducts. Dr. Hashaikeh is developing zeolite nanofibers using a process called electrospinning to make catalysts with higher performance than commercially available zeolites.

Another project centered on the development and advancement of materials for industrial and economic advantage is being led by Dr. Rashid Abu Al-Rub, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Masdar Institute. He is one of nine scientists commissioned by the US Department of Energy to design the next generation of advanced high strength steel that meets the light-weight, strength, flexibility, and safety requirements of the auto industry and is equivalent in price to traditional steel.

Dr. Abu Al-Rub and Masdar Institute MSc student Najmul Hasan Abid have developed a computational tool that can virtually design the microstructure of steel – which is what makes advanced steels strong and flexible. By designing and examining steel at this microstructural level, they were able to predict the overall strength and formability of the proposed steel. Reducing a car’s weight by 10% can improve fuel efficiency by 6% to 8%, and by reducing the weight of a steel car parts, significant carbon emissions reduction can be achieved from resulting improved fuel efficiency. The UAE government has prioritized reducing carbon emissions to achieve a reduced carbon footprint and overall improved environment.

Dr. Shanmugam is also engaged in a number of projects of value to the UAE’s industrial sectors. He has been working with Masdar Institute MSc student Alvaro Alvarez on his materials science and engineering related thesis research of relevance to the UAE’s industries.

Alvarez’s research responds to the evolving needs of the aerospace sector, which is increasingly using structural adhesives, like epoxy and toughened acrylics, to join aerospace vehicle parts, rather than welding the parts or use metal fasteners to connect them.

His research studied the stresses on such joints and used the results to prototype a more optimal joint design, structure and material. It found that the use of multi-material 3D printing technology can allow the customized design of ideal structural adhesives to bond with specific aerospace structural materials, which can potentially improve the reliability of aerospace vehicle joints. Transport and space are two sectors targeted in the National Innovation Strategy.

Dr. Shanmugam is also working on materials science research that can contribute to the UAE’s plastics and food packaging industries. This project, which is sponsored by UAE plastics solutions manufacturer Borouge, looks to enhance polyolefins, which is a type of plastic to make food packaging, to increase their resistance to oxygen, thus giving Abu Dhabi a competitive advantage in the world’s plastic market.


With these projects and collaborations and others, Masdar Institute is positioned to capitalize on the transformative potential of materials science and engineering to achieve the technological and industrial innovation required for the UAE’s strategic goals and National Innovation Strategy. Its dynamic materials science-related research span domains, industries and strategic needs, but share one common goal – uplifting the UAE and the world through the transformative power of advanced technologies and sustainable energy.

Zarina Khan
Senior Editor
20 May 2015