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Breakthrough research to produce sustainable food and fuel sources in UAE desert ecosystem

Operations underway in Abu Dhabi at the world’s first research facility growing both food and fuel in a desert ecosystem.

A biofuel research facility in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), is tackling the dual challenges of food and water security, while simultaneously providing a sustainable source of aviation fuel.

CH2M, along with its clients - Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Masdar Institute) and the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), is working together with industry, academia and government on the world’s first research facility using desert lands irrigated by seawater to produce both bioenergy for aviation, as well as raise farmed fish and shrimp for food.

“We are very proud to be involved in such an innovative and groundbreaking project,” said CH2M’s Global Water Business Group President Peter Nicol. “We have drawn on the knowledge and expertise of our global technology leaders in the fields of agri-engineering and science to design the complex elements of this project. We look forward to its successful operation and the scalability of the system being realized.”

The innovative system uses seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilizes plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production. The plants are salt-tolerant halophytes which thrive in arid, desert conditions, such as those common in the UAE. The wastewater is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, further removing nutrients and providing valuable carbon storage, before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.

CH2M was commissioned last year to undertake the engineering design and construction oversight of this sophisticated research facility. Working closely with Masdar Institute and the SBRC, CH2M engineers translated and defined the high-level concept for this seawater agriculture system into a viable operating plant, successfully mimicking a coastal environment in an inland location for research purposes.

Dr. Alejandro Ríos, Director of SBRC, said: "Working closely with a team of world-class engineers, researchers from Masdar Institute are exploring a new field of science where the discoveries may have profound impacts on food security, fresh water preservation and the protection of desert and coastline ecosystems.”

The goal of the research facility is to demonstrate the viability of an integrated bioenergy production system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up. If the technology proves viable, further expansion will continue with the ultimate ambition to scale up to a 200-hectare demonstration site.

The SBRC was established by the Masdar Institute, together with Etihad Airways, Boeing, UOP-Honeywell, TAKREER, the Abu Dhabi oil refining company, Safran and GE.

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