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Abu Dhabi food and biofuel facility opens doors

The world's first research facility to grow both food and fuel just opened in the United Arab Emirates.

Located on a two-hectare site in Abu Dhabi, the desert facility uses coastal seawater irrigation to raise fish and shrimp for food, while growing salt-tolerant plants that can be harvested to create biofuel.

The facility, operated by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, is funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a non-consortium supported by Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell.

Food and water security

"Research and innovation underpin the UAE's ability to overcome environmental and social challenges, such as food and water security, while protecting our ecosystems, from our coastlines to our deserts," said Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment.

"This project will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence."

Today, the UAE imports roughly 90% of its food — at a cost, that if left unchecked, is predicted to increase 300% over the next decade.

But the challenge of food security is also an unprecedented opportunity to advance ideas and innovations that are both sustainable and economically viable. The Masdar Institute, along with its partners, is doing just that.

"Energy, water and food security are key, interlinked needs for the UAE. Masdar Institute is committed to supporting the country's strategic goals, and we are proud to be operating this research facility, which not only develops sustainable bioenergy and food to help fuel and diversify the UAE economy, but also serves as a training ground for a new generation of innovators," said Behjat Al Yousuf, interim provost of Masdar Institute, a graduate research-based university in Abu Dhabi, and a founding member of the SBRC.

"This project reinforces Masdar City's burgeoning ecosystem of innovation and strengthens its collaborative links between industry, academia and government," said Al Yousuf.

"The cutting-edge bioenergy facility also provides an example of how collaboration produces real and valuable outcomes, and will thus inspire and attract further research to Abu Dhabi."

Aquaculture — industrial fish or shellfish farming — is one of the world's fastest expanding food sectors, with a current growth rate of about 6% a year.

While aquaculture systems can reduce a nation's dependence on foreign food and improve security, they pose environmental challenges due to the impact of nutrient-rich effluents flowing into the ocean. The SBRC tackles these concerns and is seeking to minimise the footprint of commercial farming practices.

"Aquaculture systems are here to stay," said Kevin Fitzsimmons, professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona and a globally recognised expert on aquaculture systems.

He added: "As the planet's population approaches 9bn people, we must advance technologies that enable sustainable and manageable food production.

"The innovative facility in Abu Dhabi is a showcase of how cross-sector cooperation can lead to breakthrough research with the potential to deliver both food and aviation fuel – and do so in a sustainable, scalable way."

The research facility uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilises plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production.

The salt-tolerant halophyte plants — whose commercial potential is relatively unexplored — thrive in arid, desert conditions and don't require fresh water or arable land to grow.

In the last step of the system, 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.

Sustainable aviation biofuel

"As the global community moves toward global targets to reduce emissions, aviation too is doing its part and making great progress.

"Sustainable aviation biofuel is poised to play an important role in meeting the aggressive emission reduction goals industry has set," said Marc Allen, president, Boeing International.

He added: "We're proud to be a part of the Abu Dhabi consortium establishing this new biofuel research facility. It shows real promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies."