In waterways at Zayed Port and on Reem Island, a device is generating fresh water from the ocean without electricity, a breakthrough that could change the way clean water and food are produced in the Arabian Peninsula.
Manhat, an Emirati-founded start-up launched in 2019, is using proprietary natural water distillation technology to speed up and capture the evaporation of ocean water on the surface.
Founder Dr Saeed Alhassan wants to harness his invention to build floating farms, using the fresh water collected to irrigate and grow crops right at the source.
The solution is almost too good to be true in a region that is water-scarce and racing to build up a food security strategy that reduces reliance on imports.
Desalinating seawater to make it drinkable is the current widespread method of addressing growing water scarcity around the world. At least 120 countries rely on it, but desalination is energy intensive and creates waste brine that is usually poured back into the oceans, risking marine life.
Despite efforts to ramp up clean water production, one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations.
On the issue of food security, the Abu Dhabi government’s economic accelerator programme Ghadan 21 is focused on agriculture technology.
Once fully deployed, the AgTech financial package is forecast to contribute $449.3 million to GDP and create 2,900 new jobs, and contribute to the emirate's goal of increasing domestic food production by 40 per cent.
Manhat's solution to collect seawater at the source and turn it into irrigation could address two issues simultaneously. The volume of water evaporating from the Arabian Gulf is at least 350 cubic kilometres per year. That volume is 10 times more than the total desalinated water produced annually.
Dr Alhassan believes this evaporation can be harnessed — and early prototypes of his device have been successful. He wants to be an early example for Abu Dhabi's biggest ambitions in food security, innovation and deep-tech development.
On the innovation front, he is a local champion: securing three patents for Manhat for fresh water collection from brackish sources, irrigation at the collection source and transporting the collected water back to shore.
He is part of a rising tide of patent filers in the UAE, a metric used to gauge the level of innovation in a country. The total number of patent applications tripled over the past decade to reach 24,511 in the decade between 2010 and 2020.
Mr Alhassan has had a few important early supporters, including the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, which financially supported his patent applications through its Takamul programme.
The two test devices in Abu Dhabi are the result of partnerships with Abu Dhabi Ports and property developer Aldar.
But as Mr Alhassan knows all too well, a patent will only get a good idea so far — a project must find a commercial reason to exist, to make money, in order to really succeed.
So he is now setting out to run a much larger-scale pilot project to prove commercial viability.
For that, he plans to raise around $500,000 in exchange for future equity.
The Khalifa University professor, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering, was a reluctant start-up founder, so he is also on the hunt for a co-founder to run the day-to-day business so he can focus on research.
Still, Mr Alhassan, a professor at heart, aspires to be a pioneer of Abu Dhabi's emerging start-up ecosystem so that he might teach others of what works and what doesn't.
“If you ask me, because the ecosystem is evolving, there is no blueprint of how to do this in UAE,” he told The National.
In this way, Manhat is also an early test of Abu Dhabi's ambitions to build a business-friendly environment for deep technology companies and the development of original intellectual property.
“In a perfect world, it would have been better if we have more businesses and investors collaborating with the universities to take the technology to the market as soon as possible," he said. That way, faculty could focus on developing research and the business side could be accelerated by others.
A supporter of Manhat on the World Economic Forum's online platform said that “the solution in this project seems to have found a way to solve a major human need while simultaneously reducing our negative impact on the oceanic ecosystem.”
The commenter added that this “deserves all support needed to materialise the solution".
For Mr Alhassan, he too believes the solution is there. Support, he hopes, is on the way.
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