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World’s first facility growing food, fuel in a desert ecosystem opens in Abu Dhabi

World’s first facility growing food, fuel in a desert ecosystem opens in Abu Dhabi

The bioenergy research facility is located in Masdar City

The world’s first research facility to grow both food and fuel using desert land irrigated by seawater began operations on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

The facility – operated by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – is funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium – a group working on developing alternative fuel sources for the aviation industry.

Located on a two-hectare site within Masdar City, the facility adopts aquaculture – industrial fish or shellfish farming – while also seeking sustainable solutions.

The bioenergy facility uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilises halophyte plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production.

The salt-tolerant halophyte plants thrive in arid, desert conditions and don’t require fresh water or arable land to grow.

In the last step of the system, wastewater is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, further removing nutrients and providing carbon storage. The naturally filtered and treated effluent is then discharged back into the sea.

“This project will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence,” said the United Arab Emirates’ minister of climate change and environment Dr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi.

Currently, the UAE imports roughly 90 per cent of its food at a cost – that if left unchecked – is predicted to increase 300 per cent over the next 10 years.

“Energy, water and food security are key, interlinked needs for the UAE,” added interim provost of Masdar Institute Dr Behjat Al Yousuf.

“This research facility not only develops sustainable bioenergy and food to help fuel and diversify the UAE economy, but also serves as a training ground for a new generation of innovators.”

Along with Masdar Institute, the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium includes Etihad Airways, Boeing, Honeywell UOP, Abu Dhabi oil refining company Takreer, Safran and GE Aviation.

Etihad Airways’ president and chief executive officer James Hogan said: “The commercialisation of aviation fuels – cleaner, superior-performing fuels – is a critical step toward balancing our industry’s dependency on fossil fuels.”

The goal of the research facility is to demonstrate the viability of an integrated bioenergy production system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up, a statement said.

If the technology proves viable at this smaller-scale, further expansion will continue with the ultimate aim to scale up to a 200-hectare demonstration site, the statement added.

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