KU’s Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) Demonstrates its Potential to Produce Food and Biofuel to Support National Goals
The UAE has many economic targets and visions for its prosperous and innovative future – joining the top 10 in the Global Food Security Index by 2021, growing its aviation sector while meeting international sustainability commitments, achieving economic diversity – but all of them must work within one major limitation: freshwater scarcity.
The country’s total annual renewable freshwater resources – meaning available groundwater that recharges with rainfall — are estimated at only 150 million m3 while its total water withdrawal was estimated at 3,998 million m3 in just 2005. That huge gap has been met by desalination, which in turn comes at a cost – energy, carbon emissions, and environmental impact. In fact, it’s estimated that the UAE’s joint electricity and water production method accounts for one third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The UAE leadership has launched a number of initiatives to meet its goals in its various sectors that work within these limitations, but one bold project is looking to address these needs and limitations while developing an important industry for the UAE – halophyte agriculture – or the cultivation of crops adapted to grow in saline conditions. The success of the first commercial flight fueled with biofuel produced through Khalifa University’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), which took place on 16 January with much fanfare, has demonstrated the viability of this project that produces food and fuel considering the country’s freshwater limitations while complementing its industrial goals.
“This is a major achievement for the UAE, as it shows that the country can raise fish and shrimp while growing the crop used to make bio-jetfuel, without taking up any farmland or freshwater. The SBRC’s Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) offers a multitude of benefits that respond to the UAE’s various strategic and industrial targets,” explained Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC.
The SBRC was established in 2011 by Masdar Institute, which later became part of the Khalifa University, with Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP. The founding members were later joined by ADNOC Refining, Safran, GE, and Bauer Resources. The SEAS pilot facility was inaugurated in 2016.
The SEAS works by integrating aquaculture with halophyte agriculture and agroforestry as renewable energy crops. The SEAS pilot facility, located at the Masdar Institute campus of Khalifa University was built on desert land. It has six aquaculture units that use seawater to raise fish and shrimp. The fish farm produces a nutrient-rich effluent, which is directed into Salicornia fields where it fertilizes the oil-rich and salt-loving 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.
“Once Salicornia the plants are harvested, they are set out to dry in the sun for about a week. They are then ground using a hammer mill and winnowed to separate the seeds from the straw. The oil is then extracted from the seeds by pressing and then the oil is degummed and neutralized to remove any impurities,” Dr. Rios explained.
The Salicornia oil can be refined in the same facilities used to refine crude oil into petroleum, making it complementary to the UAE’s existing hydrocarbon infrastructure. The resulting biofuel is then mixed at the allowed concentration with regular jet fuel so that it can be ‘dropped in’ to an aircraft without any modification to the engines or airframe.
This biofuel is of particular value to the UAE, as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council has approved new rules and standards that have capped growth of international aviation carbon dioxide at 2020 levels from 2021. From January 2019, all ICAO member states with aircraft operators undertaking international flights – which includes the UAE – 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). Using biofuel like the one produced through SEAS supports the UAE in its desire to meet these standards while allowing its aviation sector to continue to grow. The UAE’s aviation sector is part of its diversification plan, and is estimated to account for 16% of its GDP by 2025.
“Our next step is to build our demonstration scale facility at the 200-hectare level. We will use this facility to unlock the knowledge required to take this to commercial scale,” Dr. Rios shared, adding that “there are still a number of unanswered questions about what it will take to make this commercial, but if the SEAS were to expand to around 100,000 hectares, it could produce a significant amount of biofuel to help the UAE aviation sector meet its needs for CORSIA, though of course, this would be a challenging and unprecedented undertaking.”
At this scale, the SEAS could also help reduce the country’s carbon footprint and improve air quality, as the Salicornia and mangroves planted as part of the system would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The fish and seafood produced through the SEAS can also help the UAE achieve its goal of reaching the top 10 in the Global Food Security Index by 2021, up from its current 31st place, which was announced by UAE Minister of State for Food Security Mariam Hareb Almheiri in early December.
“Depending on the productivity of our fields, and the species we raise, we believe that over the next 20 years, if given the space and funding to expand, SEAS can produce enough fish and seafood to meet the UAE’s demand gap,” Dr. Rios added. The gap he refers to is the difference between the wild catch and current aquaculture production, and the UAE’s market consumption of seafood. Data from the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water (now the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment) recorded UAE fish catch in 2013 at 73,203 tons compared to consumption of 210,000 tons, revealing a 136,797-ton gap.
The facility can also produce other outputs of value to the country, contributing to its diversification. The Salicornia seed-cake can be used to make a protein rich meal for human or animal consumption, and other potential bioactive agents can be extracted from the plant’s straw fraction that have industrial applications that are being explored for their novel intellectual property value.
SEAS also serves as a research and training facility for the next generation of chemical, water and environmental engineers for the country’s knowledge economy.
“As a Khalifa University research facility, graduate students can develop thesis research around the SEAS, and work at the facility to test and validate their concepts. Depending on their area of research, students can learn anything from chemical engineering to genetic bioprospecting, to soil characterization, to techno-economic evaluation tools,” Dr. Rios shared.
That is why the SEAS is unprecedented in its pilot project delivery and its future potential. It is an indigenous system that ticks the UAE’s boxes for promoting energy sustainability, economic diversity, food security, carbon footprint reduction, and training and employing high-tech professionals in the future knowledge economy.
“This is a great example of industrial synergy at work, and it’s rare to see other projects in the UAE that can do so much, using inputs that most people would consider a weakness when thinking about bioenergy – desert land and seawater,” Dr. Rios concluded.