Innovation takes centre stage in UAE post-oil economy push

The UAE has been focused on diversifying its economy away from oil to enter new markets and industries that can unlock its human capital. The country's visionary leadership is preparing it for the day the last barrel of oil is pumped from the ground.

The Emirates Global Aluminium plant in Abu Dhabi. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
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For decades, the UAE has been focused on diversifying its economy away from oil to enter new markets and industries that can unlock its human capital. This drive is partly focused on fuelling economic growth and job creation. However, our visionary leadership is also preparing us for the day the last barrel of oil is pumped from the ground.

At that moment, the UAE’s minds will become our central natural resource.

Today the UAE is home to two of the world’s leading airlines (Etihad Airways and Emirates); an international developer (Emaar); one of the most successful petrochemicals firms (Borouge); a world leader in renewable energy (Masdar); as well as countless other firms and businesses involved in everything from aerospace to global finance. And of course, there is Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), the company I have called home for more than 25 years, and which today has helped to build the UAE’s position as the world’s fourth-largest aluminium-producing nation.

All of these companies operate in disparate and seemingly unrelated markets, but they are playing on the world stage like never before. They are growing into international markets and benefiting from sector growth amid dramatic economic shifts.

Yet what really unites all of the UAE champions is something that will grow ever more fundamental to the success of the UAE’s diversification efforts – they are innovators. They have taken existing ideas and made them better. They have embraced technological innovation and applied it to their local needs and they continue to drive new thinking and experimentation. Most importantly, they have introduced Emirati talent to a world of new opportunities.

EGA is a good example of this. From its beginnings in Dubai, its growth now looks prescient as it benefits from dramatic changes around the world. Aluminium use is growing in applications ranging from automobiles to aerospace, where its low weight and high strength are crucial. It is also benefiting from growing attention to sustainability thanks to the ease with which it can be recycled. Aluminium is truly an ecologically advantaged metal and we aim to make the most of it.

What brought EGA to our current global status has been more than two decades of focused, diligent work in research and development, improving the efficiency of the smelting process and reducing waste and energy consumption. In successive generations, we have introduced refinements that have allowed us to cut our energy costs considerably and made us a real competitor on the world stage.

The great leap in the development of our technology began back in 2003, when our efforts concentrated on improving the energy-intensive aluminium smelting process.

The concepts in aluminium smelting are more than 100 years old and are still virtually unchanged – alumina in solution is converted into aluminium metal deposited on a cathode through an electrochemical process that results in highly refined metal.

The focus of innovation is on improving yields and reducing energy consumption. That entails intricate changes to the anodes and cathodes, modifying surface areas, making them more porous and affecting their shapes and modifying the concentrations in solution. It is painstaking science and electrochemical work that requires years of empirical work and experimentation.

And we did it all here in the UAE, with a team of young Emirati chemists, electrical engineers and materials scientists at our labs. Today, these bright minds are leaders at companies across the UAE industrial sector, and a new generation of young Emirati engineers and scientists are leading the charge to innovate the technology further with us.

What set the effort apart further was the unusually rapid pace of development. From that early start in 2003, we had a completed prototype in 2005, and in 2007 we commissioned the first industrial application of the process in phase 1 of Emirates Aluminium.

The result is our proprietary DX smelting technology, which produces aluminium with a fraction of the power previously consumed. Considering that up to one-third of the cost of producing aluminium is the cost of energy, such innovations can have dramatic impact on profitability and overall competitiveness.

Equally important, the technology platform we developed will allow us to produce aluminium with a considerably lower environmental footprint, reinforcing the sustainable promise of EGA’s aluminium.

The pinnacle of this effort came last year, when we licensed our latest DX+ Ultra technology to Aluminium Bahrain (Alba). We became the first UAE industrial champion to license its home-grown technology, a major source of pride in our growth. We continue to pursue licensing agreements with other aluminium producers around the world, while at the same time focusing on continued improvements to our processes that will raise the bar not only for ourselves, but the industry.

The real challenge facing UAE companies as they successfully innovate their businesses is how to ensure their intellectual property is protected and delivers its promised value. The answer is patents.

Patents have a strong impact on competitiveness and enhance market entry and firm creation. Not only is there evidence of small companies being able to assert their right in front of larger ones thanks to their patent portfolio, but patents may also be a decisive condition for entrepreneurs to obtain funds from venture capitalists. They are also important mechanisms for local companies to grow globally and garner new markets.

Enhancing technology diffusion has been the goal put forward by governments to encourage universities to patent their inventions, with the objective of licensing them to businesses that will further develop and commercialise them.

As the UAE progresses on its way from emerging market status to developed status, the number of patents being filed by UAE firms must steadily increase. In fact, the most important indicator of an innovative economy is the number of patents filed each year.

EGA currently has an active patenting programme and to date has filed 16 patents in the United Kingdom and four patents in the GCC and internationally. We are applying for others pertaining to various aspects of the smelting process as well. Other UAE companies are pursuing their own patent programmes as well, such as Borouge and the Masdar Institute.

We take great pride in being among the top companies contributing to the UAE’s development as an industrial leader in the Middle East.

Today, we can offer other UAE firms our experience in reaching this stage and lessons in doing so rapidly and efficiently. Perhaps in a few decades from now we will be able to look back at this period as the UAE’s industrial revolution.

Ali Al Zarouni is the executive vice president of mid-stream and technology development and transfer at Emirates Global Aluminium