UAE scientists look to grow biofuel even in seawater

September 21, 2018

There are many plants that could, in theory, be used as a source of biofuel – a natural renewable fuel with the potential to replace some of the fossil fuels we currently depend on.

But extracting this biofuel from plant matter can be difficult, expensive and inefficient – making the biofuel too expensive to be a realistic option.

What we need is enzymes to do the job for us, extracting and breaking down the plant cellulose into useful biofuel. And one good place to look might be the microorganisms and fungi that already do a similar job in nature.

If we can find and identify microorganisms that produce cellulose degrading enzymes as a normal part of their makeup, the process of turning plant matter into fuel may be simplified and made more affordable.

That is why Masdar Institute, through funding from the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, is working to identify novel biomass-deconstructing enzymes in microorganisms native to the UAE that are suitable for biofuel production from local species of salt-tolerant plants.

The UAE’s mangrove forests are a unique ecosystem that have evolved over millennia to deal with their own waste. The trees constantly produce cellulose waste, in the form of litter, that falls into the sediment below. There, it is decomposed by filamentous fungi and microbes.

These fungi in particular are known for their role in decomposing and recycling cellulose biomass – and that makes them a good place to look for enzymes called cellulases that help breakdown cellulose.

Mangroves host many types of fungi, but very little is known about cellulolytic fungi from mangroves in the Middle East.

The mangrove sediments of Abu Dhabi are particularly interesting because they are subjected to high temperatures (above 40C) and salt concentrations.

This means that whatever fungi live in the mangrove sediments are likely to have unique qualities and enzymes that enable them to tolerate the harsh conditions of their environment.

Salt-tolerance is of particular interest for cellulase screening, as they could help us extract biofuel from salt-water loving plants. Halophytes, as such plants are called, could easily be cultivated in the UAE using seawater instead of freshwater, making them a far more environmentally friendly option for clean fuel.

So far, we have isolated 15 morphologically different types of filamentous fungi – 10 of which were cultured to purity.

Most of those belong to a group that is known to tolerate up to four times the normal salt concentration of sea water. We are now working on characterizing and screening their secreted proteins for cellulase activity.

It is our hope that through this research we can identify fungi that have evolved in the UAE’s landscape to breakdown and feed off the high energy, salt-loving plants that we are researching for biofuel production.

These biofuels can be used in place of many forms of fossil fuels to help Abu Dhabi reach its goals for sustainability through the production of clean fuels.

With the global biofuel market expected to be worth more than $180 billion by 2021, this project could also provide Abu Dhabi with a valuable export product for its knowledge-economy.

Dr. Lina Yousef is an assistant professor of water and environmental engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.