With the successful launch of the maiden flight powered by biofuel cultivated by Khalifa University's Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), the UAE has demonstrated how the desert can be irrigated with seawater to enhance food production in harmony with local industry, environment, and economic goals.
The UAE is continually looking to increase its food production without increasing its water insecurity or carbon footprint. This has been particularly challenging, as crop and livestock production are water intensive, and freshwater in the UAE is scarce, requiring high-energy desalination processes.
The Arabian Gulf provides access to seafood, while cultivation of desert crops like dates is part of a small agricultural sector, but neither is enough to produce much food to meet local demands, which is of particular interest as health and environment concerns push many residents to want to 'eat local'. With the majority of the UAE's landscape made up of infertile desert land which experiences little rainfall and has no access to rivers and lakes, the country has not been able to develop a large agricultural industry, and has relied heavily on food imports. Around 85 per cent of food in the country is imported.
New technologies harbour the promise of improving conditions with vertical farming and hydroponics investments, but this will take time and only be part of the solution.
For the past 20-30 years, the UAE has also been working to diversify its economy away from reliance on its hydrocarbons. The solution hit upon by the UAE's leadership has been to turn the country into a knowledge economy through investment in high-value science and engineering-based sectors, with an end goal of turning the people in the UAE into its ultimate resource. One of these high-value sectors is aviation, which has come to represent 15 per cent of the UAE's GDP and contributes significantly to its travel and tourism industry. The UAE is also the third largest country in the world in terms of revenue tonne kilometers (RTKs), only behind China and the US, but the sector is not without its own challenges.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council has approved new rules and standards that cap the growth of international aviation's carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels from 2021. From January 2019, all ICAO member states with aircraft operators undertaking international flights must compile and submit their airlines' CO2 emissions to the ICAO so it can prepare its planned Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Meeting this standard would require the use of carbon offsets and/or biofuels. Carbon offsets are a form of trade, where one must invest in projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equal to the amount of carbon one emits.
The UAE's leadership has been responding to all of these national and international-level challenges with a range of strategies, projects and initiatives. However, it is difficult to contribute to these major goals via a single project - food security, economic diversification, freshwater security, and sustainable aviation. Until now.
The SBRC's Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) is the first project that has done that. Built on desert land, it uses seawater to raise fish and shrimp. They, in turn, produce a nutrient-rich effluent that is directed into halophyte fields, where it fertilises the oil-rich Salicornia plants. The leftover effluent from the process is then diverted into the cultivated mangrove forests, which further purify the water and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while sheltering fish nurseries that live around their underwater roots. When the Salicornia plants mature, they are harvested and their seeds are extracted. Oil is collected from their seeds and then refined in a process that is almost identical to refining crude petroleum. The biofuel can then be mixed at the specified concentration with regular jet fuel and 'dropped in' to an aircraft without any modification to the aircraft engines, airframe, or delivery systems.
The result of the SEAS is a project that provides the UAE with a synergistic industrial platform, beginning with a new agriculture industry based on seawater and arid land, food in the form of fish and shrimp, and biofuel that supports the country's aviation sector. At the same time, it is a project that works with the country's existing industrial strengths - petroleum refining and aviation - producing biofuel to meet aviation's CORSIA requirements. The SEAS also serves as a research facility that helps train and develop environment and chemical engineering students who will contribute to the country's innovative knowledge economy.
Now, what remains to achieve the intended transformational impact of the SEAS is to expand from its current pilot phase, to a larger facility able to demonstrate the needs for commercial scale-up. This move would eventually not only enable the country's airlines to meet their CORSIA requirements, but would also provide fish and shrimp to the UAE's markets to increase food security, while employing a large number of engineers and technicians produced by its universities.
Alejandro Ros Galvan is Director of Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium and Professor of Practice at Khalifa University of Science and Technology
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