Qatar University (QU)has revealed research into the development of sustainable biofuels, as the Gulf state hosts the UN climate change conference COP18.
The state-backed QR45.5million biofuel project is the only one of its kind in the region. Now, the team has publicly detailed its latest progress for the first time.
The university’s project, in collaboration with Qatar Airways and Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) is now into its third year. From a standing start, where the labs were nothing more than empty rooms, the research team has developed state-of-the-art facilities which are the best in the GCC and competitive internationally for this type of research.
The project aims to produce affordable, sustainable biofuels which do not use valuable arable land and which can be produced efficiently in the punishing climate of Qatar. These fuels should provide an alternative source of energy for use by the airline industry. If successfully produced on a commercial scale, the discovery will have international ramifications - significantly reducing one of the airline industry’s biggest fixed costs and providing a sustainable, environmentally-friendly fuel where carbon dioxide is recycled rather than accumulating in the atmosphere.
The research team isolated multiple forms of single-celled photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria and microalgae), unique to Qatar. These are abundant in the waters of Qatar – they have been found in environments such as the marinas at the Pearl-Qatar to the wastewaters of Abu Nakhla - and grow well in the extreme heat, strong sunlight and highly saline waters of Qatar.
The research group successfully grew these cultures in the lab, extracting the fat – lipids – to make fuel, while carbohydrate is used to make bioethanol. They then scaled up their tests to tanks of 1,500 litres situated outdoors at QU’s research farm in Al Khor, north of Doha. Having grown them successfully for six weeks, the experiment is now being scaled up even further – to 25,000 litre, specially-designed outdoor research ponds.
The step after that will be the construction of a pilot plant on a much larger scale – 1.5million litres. The aviation industry has been keenly following the project throughout its stages.
Project Manager Hareb al-Jabri said: “We are at an exciting and critical point in this project. If successful, it could help transform the international aviation industry.
“This project is a real example of successful state-backed collaboration, to find sustainable ways of enabling Qatar’s development which will have an impact across the world.”
Biofuels Project Director Dr Malcolm Potts said: “We are working with micro-organisms which can be grown anywhere, and which are particularly suitable to the environment of Qatar. We are trying to develop a biofuel industry here in Qatar, using new technologies not found anywhere else in the world.
“We are also delighted that more than one-third of the 20-strong international Biofuel team comprises Qatari graduates of QU who bring to bear a high level of skill to the project.”