Page Banner

United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


Location: Soil Management Research

Title: The current potential of algae biofuels in the United Arab Emirates

item Jaradat, Abdullah

Submitted to: Biofuels
Publication Type: Other
Publication Acceptance Date: April 5, 2013
Publication Date: July 1, 2013
Citation: Jaradat, A.A. 2013. The current potential of algae biofuels in the United Arab Emirates. Biofuels. 4(4):347-349.

Technical Abstract: In spite of future uncertainties about industrial algae biofuel production, the UAE is planning to become "a world leader in biofuels from the algae industry by 2020;" thus joining major countries which have already started producing renewable energy and biofuels (biodiesel and bioethanol) from renewable sources, including algae. Although one of the world’s largest crude oil exporters, the UAE already embarked on a nuclear program for civilian use and established the world’s largest solar energy farm in order to diversify its energy sources and face the "sustainability" of "renewable" energy challenges. This move was taken, in part, to combat climate change by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and to protect the environment. A newly established R&D center, MASDAR, is spearheading these efforts. The rising energy consumption and demand for electricity from traditional sources represent a challenge for the country and may have triggered the move by public and private sectors to develop environmentally-friendly and renewable energy sources, including algae. If ~10 million hectares of algae could meet the demand of the entire US transportation system, then a fraction of this land area can meet, if not exceed, the whole energy demand of the UAE. The great challenge is to design, implement and maintain open-pond production systems that are economically and environmentally sound. Considering the current level of biofuel from algae technology, the use of industrial-scale photobioreactors is prohibitively expensive. On the face of it, the potential for a thriving algae-based biofuel industry in the UAE seems to be positive and sizable. The vast desert expanses; the long shorelines; around-the-year sunny days; ample carbon dioxide from flue gas; plenty of seawater, brackish and grey water from sewage and wastewater plants; and "adapted" native algae species, some of which thrive in "sabkhas" with salinity levels twice as high as those in the Gulf waters are invaluable assets, and support a strong justification for a future algae-based biofuel industry. The local popular press and many research-based reports consider such industry, compared with fossil fuels, as environmentally-friendly and sustainable; carbon-neutral; efficient in converting sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into "clean" energy; and scalable. However, it is too early to take all of this for granted and "without a grain of salt." Research and development, along with rigorous life cycle analyses during the pilot phase and throughout implementation, testing and up scaling, are essential to verify that the industry is environmentally "green," and economically viable and competitive. Technological advances and a highly optimized production system to fit local conditions are key factors in achieving the said objective. The UAE, as part of the Arabian Peninsula, has an extremely arid hot climate; high annual solar irradiance (~2,000 kWh/m2) and potential evapo-transpiration rate (~ 3,000 mm/year); sparse natural vegetation; fragile soil resources; and mainly non-renewable alluvial aquifers. Apart from a reliable and free source of light and, probably more than enough heat source necessary for algae farming, proper mix of the remaining resources may not be readily available at the right time and place. A reliable and inexpensive water supply, including fresh water, is critical for all phases of algae growth and bioenergy production. Although saline and brackish grades of water are available, they may need pre-treatment, are not readily amenable for recycling, and depending on proximity to algae farms, they need energy expenditure for their delivery and discharge. Under the dry conditions of the UAE, evaporation rates and the amount of salt to be disposed of are real concerns, especially in relation to aquatic and marine life in the Gulf; a relatively small and semi-closed, bottle-necked water body under increasing environmental stress. Besides the availability of plenty of water, algae growth needs large amounts of nutrients. Production, delivery, cycling and management of these nutrients will depend on the size of algae farms and on the level of sophistication of their design and operation. Nutrient pollution in a country with a fragile ecosystem will have far-reaching repercussions on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem structures and functions, including the sensitive intertidal mangrove ecosystems and associated flora and fauna. Nevertheless, if properly managed, residual nutrients may produce positive effects on surrounding ecosystems. The current (393 ppm) and projected atmospheric content of carbon dioxide towards the end of the 21st century (>500 ppm), although potentially damaging from an environmental point of view, is not enough to satisfy the needs of algae for maximum biomass and bioenergy production. Therefore, algae farms require a large and continuous supply of carbon dioxide. Algae needs 1.83 kg of the gas to produce 1 kg of dry weight of algae biomass; however, depending on its fixation efficiency, which is very low in open ponds (~ 10%), the actual amount of carbon dioxide needed is several times more. Power stations and desalination plants are reliable sources of continuous carbon dioxide supply; however, these are strategically located in certain areas of UAE that may or may not be appropriate for algae farming. In addition, separating carbon dioxide from the flue gas may be necessary to avoid any adverse effects on the algae and requires additional energy expenditure. Land area suitable for large-scale, shallow "open-pond" algae farms may not be a limiting factor as envisioned by some developers and entrepreneurs. However, soils in the UAE are predominantly light-textured with high permeability and will need lining and sealing for economic and environmental reasons. Poor soil conditions, if all other requirements are satisfied, may add to the capital cost of algae farming. In addition, large-scale pond construction for industrial algae farming may have large impact on the “narrow” biodiversity base in the UAE. The most important player in the whole system is, however, the single cell algae! Local sources contend that "The native algae are unique... have evolved to grow under a wide range of temperatures and salinities..." It is pertinent to remark that the search, among the huge natural variability of local "wild type" algae, for the right species that can be adapted to industrial settings and are capable of delivering high biomass and biofuel content under local conditions will not be simple or straightforward. It is well known that the future of biofuels, whether from plants or algae, depends on breakthroughs in genetics, molecular biology, and metabolic engineering. Genetic modification of algae is an option to maximize biomass and biofuel production; it was already successfully used in pilot projects elsewhere. Using genetically-modified algae at a large scale in open ponds may pose serious environmental and regulatory threats and challenges in the UAE. Genetically-modified or wild-type algae may produce toxic chemicals that can be harmful to humans and to the environment unless properly regulated. Summer sand storms, a common phenomenon in the UAE and other arid and semi-arid parts of the Middle East, are known to move or dump huge amounts of dust, and may represent a challenge in the design, maintenance and management of algae open ponds. Many claims and counter claims in the popular press, and a wide range of conclusions based on life cycle analyses of short-term pilot projects, add to the uncertainty of the future of algae as a sustainable source of bioenergy in developed and developing countries. Most certainly, breakthroughs in biotechnology will change this landscape. In the case of the UAE as a leading oil-producing country, imagine algae farms as "above-the-ground oil fields... that is renewable and carbon neutral!" An algae-based oil industry in the

Last Modified: 8/25/2016
Footer Content Back to Top of Page