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

item Jaradat, Abdullah

Submitted to: Biofuels
Publication Type: Other
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/5/2013
Publication Date: 7/1/2013
Citation: Jaradat, A.A. 2013. The current potential of algae biofuels in the United Arab Emirates. Biofuels. 4(4):347-349.

Interpretive Summary:

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,