Focusing on hi-tech research

Feature on Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which is part of Masdar City.

January 18, 2009, Dubai: Students and their professors at the institute, the research and education arm of Masdar City
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Research in an array of alternative energy fields has begun at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology ahead of the start of master's degree courses this autumn. Students and their professors at the institute, the research and education arm of Masdar City, are focusing on subjects such as the interaction between the carbon and energy markets, and improvements in solar power. Dr Marwan Khraisheh, the dean of engineering and acting provost at the institute, said other projects related to the conversion of waste to energy and sustainable aviation.

The work will not just focus on developing new technologies, but how those advances can be used in the real world. Additionally, faculty and students will research energy policy. "We believe it's important to develop new technology, but it's just as important to integrate the technology into the system and see how it responds, and to develop appropriate policies that will make sure the technology is deployed," Dr Khraisheh said. "We'll focus on the cutting-edge multidisciplinary research needed to create new solutions for sustainable energy."

The Masdar Institute's goal is to become "one of the world's premier research-driven universities" with the best faculty, according to Dr Khraisheh. "With the commitment of the leadership and with our partner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we will be able to achieve this," he said. "We are developing a home-grown institution with the quality and reputation of MIT, developing Abu Dhabi as a knowledge hub and helping to transform its economy to a knowledge-based one."

The centre is looking at alternative energy sources such as biomass, wind and geothermal. Researchers are not confining themselves to work relevant to the UAE. One faculty member is looking at wave power, even though this is unlikely to be of use in the Gulf's calm waters. Other research is specific to the region, such as that being carried out by Dr Matteo Chiesa, a Norwegian assistant professor. He studies the way sand sticks to photovoltaic panels and reduces their efficiency, a particular problem after condensation.

"If you had a hydrophobic surface, that sticking would be less. That's what we're looking at, so you can reduce the amount of cleaning," he said. In total, 22 students have joined Masdar Institute to complete one year of research before beginning a two-year master's programme in September. Student numbers will grow to about 100 this autumn, when the master's degrees in mechanical engineering, material science and engineering, engineering systems and management, information technology and water and the environment are launched.

More than 600 applications have been received for the remaining places, with the Middle East and North Africa the most heavily represented regions. Dr Khraisheh said the admission standards were "very high" and comparable to those at MIT, which has signed a five-year deal to provide academic support and collaboration. Fourteen staff, selected from 1,000 applicants, have started work at Masdar Institute after spending up to a year at MIT developing collaborative research projects. Five more are working at the American institution in advance of moving to the UAE.

Dr Georgeta Vidican, an assistant professor from Romania, said those enrolled were "a great group" of students. "They have a very high level of intellectual curiosity that keeps us going as academics and supports us in our research." Some of the students are likely to begin PhD programmes when they launch in the autumn of 2011, as the first master's courses are completed. Masdar Institute is based in the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, but the first phase of its permanent campus in Masdar City will be ready for the start of master's degrees this September.

The campus is likely to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012, and by this time the institute expects to have between 500 and 600 students and 80 academic staff. Beyond this, further growth is possible with the launch of more degree programmes. "We will definitely be able to expand and add more classrooms if we need," said Dr Khraisheh, a Palestinian with a PhD in mechanical engineering from Washington State University.

While the UAE is already represented among the student body, there are plans to further encourage Emiratis to enter the alternative energy field through scholarships to study abroad before returning home to take up positions at Masdar Institute, or elsewhere in Masdar. "We will provide constant help and support to these students, advising them both technically and logistically," Dr Khraisheh said.

Masdar City is likely to include about 1,500 businesses, many working in the alternative energy field and using technology developed at Masdar Institute. A number of students will gain particular satisfaction from helping the UAE move towards alternative energy sources. Among them is Karim Mousa, 22, who holds a Jordanian passport. "The institute is at the heart of one of the most ambitious projects in the world and it is good to be part of something that could change the country I live in. I was born and raised here," he said.

"Being part of that institute and being able to see its effects - that brings me to work with a different attitude. "The country is aware there needs to be change and they're aware that investing for future energy is not only good for the environment, but that the biggest investor now will be the biggest winner later. You only have to look at Germany to see how far it's gone." Nadya Shafeeq al Mnannaei, 22, a UAE national, said that while her interest was in "helping to solve problems that affect different regions of the world", she was nonetheless looking forward to seeing Masdar Institute develop technology that could be applied here. "I believe as a UAE national it is really important that my country is starting to develop sustainable energy."

John Sitler, 26, an American, felt confident that academic standards would be high because of the institute's close links with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "I wasn't nervous about it. I was excited to see something so large develop and grow. There is nothing really like this in the US. The other students have a deep knowledge of a lot of areas," he said.