Abu Dhabi perfect for crop that could change the world

Some of the huge swathes of open desert and coast that Abu Dhabi has in ample supply could one day be the farmlands for a promising type of crop – algae.

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Think of Abu Dhabi's landscape and you might envisage sandy beaches and rolling dunes spotted with the occasional windblown plant - a picture that is not particularly lush or verdant.

But this hot and arid region actually has great potential to support a type of life that can contribute to the economic and environmental vibrancy of the emirate.

Some of the huge swathes of open desert and coast that Abu Dhabi has in ample supply could, one day, be the farmlands for a promising type of crop, to provide sustainable energy and a valuable export commodity.

Certain kinds of algae - simple plants that grow in water and have no true stems, roots or leaves - could be easily cultivated here.

Abu Dhabi's abundant sunshine and climate makes it a nearly ideal location for growing microalgae - and with the right treatment, this algae can be turned into biofuel.

Microalgae biofuels have several advantages over other biomass-derived fuel sources. They can be grown on dry, salty or nutrient-poor land that is otherwise useless for farming. That removes the "food-versus-fuel" argument that is often used against other forms of biofuel, such as ethanol derived from corn.

Algae also does not sap the UAE's precious reserves of fresh water, growing in brackish water, seawater and even wastewater. And because the carbon in the fuel has only recently been captured from the atmosphere, the whole process is carbon-neutral.

Lastly, the algae has the potential to produce useful - and valuable - byproducts, in the form of pharmaceutical or even food supplements.

With these benefits in mind, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has started investigating the use of native microalgae strains for making biofuels.

This research is being carried out by interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers, exploring both the agricultural and chemical engineering sides of cultivating the microalgae and producing drop-in diesel and jet fuel.

Agriculturally, the focus is on understanding what conditions - temperature, salinity and exposure to sunlight - provide the best growing environment for strains that are native to the UAE.

For fuel synthesis, standard biofuels processing techniques to extract oils from the microalgae - to be subsequently turned into fuel - are being investigated, as well as other more novel routes that are not based on oils.

The Masdar Institute is also exploring microalgal products including proteins and carotenes that can be used as food supplements or pharmaceuticals. Key to this is understanding the metabolic pathways that microalgae use to produce nutrients such as beta-carotene. Native strains are currently being mapped genetically for this purpose. The strains will then be genetically manipulated to make the process more efficient.

In addition to microalgae, the scientists and engineers at Masdar Institute are also looking at macroalgae - more commonly known as seaweed.

Seaweed is potentially a rich source for pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotic and antiviral compounds, which have a very high commercial value.

But little is known about the composition of and potential products that could be obtained from the macroalgae that are native to the UAE.

Work at present is focused on prospecting for native macroalgae strains and describing their chemistry.

With about 2,390 kilometres of coastline along the mainland and islands of the southern Arabian Gulf, products from living marine habitants could very well prove to be a viable new "green" industry for Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

Dr Robert M Baldwin is professor of chemical engineering at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.