With sustainable energy one of the most pressing topics facing the UAE and the modern world, the country is working with the Netherlands to bring cutting-edge solutions to Expo 2020 and beyond.
The Energy Research Centre in The Hague is working on applied research to transform the energy sector, from improvements to solar panels to extracting energy from seaweed.
"The Netherlands is a very energy-intensive country," said Harm Jeeninga, director of business and programme development at the centre. "It's a challenge because the energy industry has to switch to renewables so the Netherlands is in a massive energy transition."
The future of solar
With regards to solar power, the basic aim of the centre’s research programme is to decrease the cost of the production of electricity by decreasing the cost of materials, increasing panel efficiency and moving towards automated production methods.
"A new concept we are working on is bi-facial solar cells," Mr Jeeninga said. "If you want to take the next step, you have to put multiple layers together on a panel."
Aesthetically, he found a method to decorate solar panels with different colours or shapes, which can also help increase energy efficiency.
"White is by far the wrong colour for solar panels," he said. "The blacker it is, the higher the efficiency. We're making some with bricks and we aim to install them on the Expo 2020 building. You can also include a noise barrier for roads."
The multi-layered panels produce upto 30 per cent more energy. "By next year, I expect we'll have many buildings in the Netherlands using this," Mr Jeeninga said.
According to Jaap van Hal, biorefinary innovation manager at the centre, a slow transition to a sustainable energy society is happening.
“We have developed ways to better use the resources we have – like reusing waste heat for instance,” he said.
Planting weeds for clean energy
Seaweed is another element to help the transition. It does not take costly agricultural land or fresh water, as the plant grows in the sea, can remove contaminants from water and thereby can be applied for bioremediation and is ideally suited for biorefining.
The first seaweed biorefinery was established in 1916 in California. It produced solvents, nail polish remover and fertilisers.
At the centre in the Netherlands, anything energy-related must have an energy return on it. "Our seaweed cultivation area is 5,000 square kilometres with a potential of producing upto 350 petajoules of energy," Mr van Hal said.
"All of the 17 million people in the Netherlands can be catered for and most European countries with a coastal area can grow seaweed."
Scientists view it as complimentary to solar. "You need electricity and carbon-based carriers," Mr van Hal said.
Transport will still be an important factor in the energy balance too. "It's part of the transition to a circular sustainable society," he said. "You need bio-based carbon with seaweed and you can use it for food too, not just energy, as well as other speciality products that have a high value.
"We can make bio-fuel that can be fermented to a fuel, like bioethanol for instance, or a plastic soup bottle with seaweed. You can make anything."
John van Leeuwen, co-owner of Seaweed Harvest Holland, which was nominated as one of the most innovative companies in the country, started the practice a few years ago.
“The average age of the population in Okinawa in Japan is 99 years old and they use lots of seaweed,” he said. “Worldwide, there are 12,000 species of seaweed and we have 175 different kinds in eastern Scheldt. We have two harvestings a year and we breed it in our own lab.”