Spread across five acres (2 hectares) in Masdar City, the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) is officially opened after being on the drawing board for a few years. In what Masdar Institute bills as the “world’s first research facility to grow both food and fuel,” this project in the United Arab Emirates aims to kill several "smart cities" birds with one stone. The SBRC is just one more example of how the UAE is trying to diversify its economy and plan for a more resilient future as it is heavily dependent on food imports to feed its growing population.

First, the ponds onsite will produce fish shrimp and fish, addressing the reality that aquaculture has a future meeting the world’s growing demand for protein while acknowledging its waste has become a worldwide environmental headache. Next, waste from raising that seafood will then flow into fields of halophyte plants. The project’s partners, which include Boeing, have focused on halophytes because they are native to the region, have demonstrated potential as a renewable source for aviation biofuels and can thrive while growing water of high salinity (necessary as the seawater surrounding Abu Dhabi is saltier than in other regions across the world).

In addition, researchers will then harvest the biomass and oils from the halophytes and process them into biofuels. It’s important to remember that this is a small-scale project: Each hectare can produce about two tons of seeds, which will have about a 30 percent oil content. We are still far from completely fueling transoceanic flights, even with a 5 percent biofuel-to-conventional fuel blend. But for the Middle East, a region that has to prepare for a world with diminishing petroleum supplies while coping with food security, this project is a start.

Finally, effluent from the previous steps will be discharged into cultivated mangroves, which have long served has a natural barrier in the Abu Dhabi area between land and sea. Mangroves have long been recognized as an effective carbon sink as they filter out nutrients from polluting the Gulf. Unfortunately, rapid development has destroyed many of these mangroves, so this project could also serve as a wake-up call to restore one of the natural wonders of this region.

Masdar Institute and its partners, Boeing, Etihad, and GE hope to demonstrate the viability of an integrated bioenergy production system that can be viable for essential food and fuel production, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up. If the technology proves viable at this smaller-scale, Masdar says further expansion will continue with the ultimate ambition to scale up to a 200-hectare demonstration site.

Image credit: Masdar Institute

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.