Camels' stomachs could provide key to cheap, renewable biofuel

Scientists at the the UAE's Masdar Institute are using metagenomics to look for useful microbes.

Finding a cheap, renewable and environmentally friendly fuel is considered the ultimate aspiration of energy production. Most of the well-developed forms of renewable energy - wind, solar, thermal and nuclear - easily tick two of those boxes. But managing all three is far harder.

The key may lie with the humble camel. Or more specifically, in the humble camel. At the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, I am currently focusing my master's thesis research on the biogas-producing potential of the microbes that live in camels' stomachs.

Large ruminants - plant-eating mammals such as cows, goats and camels - have a unique ability to turn the most seemingly inedible plant matter into a source of nutrients. They manage that partly thanks to their multi-chamber stomachs, but also with help from the microscopic organisms that live in their stomachs and break down otherwise insoluble material.

Those microbes have evolved over millions of years to effectively process and release the energy stored in the plants in a way that inorganic methods developed in labs cannot begin to replicate. Now we hope to capitalise on that evolution to turn plant waste into a source of fuel.

This pioneering research relies on metagenomics, also known as community genomics or environmental genomics - a new technique that allows the DNA of micro-organisms to be sequenced and analysed without having to grow them in culture. Using metagenomics, we are working to identify the community of microbes in camels' stomachs, and their properties. Then we can find out which ones produce the most methane when they break down and digest plant matter.

We hope eventually to be able to be able to produce a regular supply of renewable methane biogas, to help the UAE become more sustainable. The required microbes will be taken from the dung of UAE camels - which number about 750,000 and rising - without any additional cost or significant use of resources.

They will be used to populate artificial anaerobic digesters, simulating camels' digestion on a massive scale and producing methane biogas through a system that has already been successfully tested for cow gut microbes. The resulting biogas can be used in place of natural gas, to help meet the country's goal of getting 7 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

It can be used for cooking, fuelling gas-powered cars and buses, running desalination plants, producing electricity, and many other functions currently met by natural gas, without any changes to the existing infrastructure.

The project will have the additional benefit of using waste to produce fuel - thus saving landfill space and preserving the environment.

The microbes we aim to cultivate in our bioreactors will be fed on a mix of organic household waste and agricultural waste, particularly waste from date farms, which discard about 30 per cent of their produce in the quality control process.

That way, we can use not one but two of the UAE's traditional agricultural staples to produce a single source of clean energy to fuel our bright future, while pioneering a new area of research and contributing to the country's transformation into a knowledge economy.


Alya Al Tunaiji is a master's student at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

Published: November 25, 2012 04:00 AM


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