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Abu Dhabi scientists developing high salinity algal strain

August 18, 2013

Ahmed Al Harethi, a second year master's student with Masdar Institute's Chemical Engineering program, is cultivating algae strains found in water pools in Al Wathbah, Abu Dhabi, for his biofuel research. Courtesy Masdar Institute

Ahmed Al Harethi, a second year master’s student with Masdar Institute’s Chemical Engineering program, is cultivating algae strains found in water pools in Al Wathbah, Abu Dhabi, for his biofuel research. Courtesy Masdar Institute

Matt Kwong reports for The National that researchers from Abu Dhabi have been roaming the open desert with geospatial mapping software, looking for blooms of AAH001, a particularly hardy strain of algae native to Abu Dhabi, that could eventually usher in another energy boom for the UAE.

Dr. Hector Hernandez, the assistant professor at the Masdar Institute who is leading the research, first located AAH001 two years ago in the desert near Al Wathba. He believes it could solve a big obstacle in the effort to use single-celled, photosynthetic organisms to make a renewable, alternative fuel.

“Most of the algae used for biofuels we’ve heard about to date use fresh water, and there’s huge evaporation,” said Dr. Hernandez. “In the last two years, people have realized that’s not sustainable. They’ve been looking for algae that live at high salinities. We found it in Abu Dhabi, and we realized we had something special. This thing is a rock star.”

Unlike most algal strains, AAH001 survives remarkably well in a wide range of temperatures and has a long harvesting season. “I can grow this from 20°C all the way up to 40°C without worrying about evaporation or the salinity,” Dr. Hernandez said. “It seems to live very well, not just survive, in all these different conditions.”

Dr. Hernandez said he was pleasantly surprised in February 2011 to discover AAH001 in the desert, growing near ultra-high salinity watering holes in the sabkha (salt flats). Ponds in the area have salinities that are up to six times higher than the ocean.

In a basement lab at the Masdar Institute, Dr. Hernandez and his team have been able to grow the algae at more than 300 parts per thousand salt – roughly nine times the regular salinity of the ocean. The strain is considerably lower maintenance, and does not require the same specialized feed, strict temperatures or salinity controls as other algae. “It seems to be the only strain to date that has all the qualities we’re looking for,” said Dr. Hernandez.

With so much uninhabitable desert available in Abu Dhabi, processing plants could be built inland and around large salt flats rather than by the sea, where they would harm ecologically sensitive marine life.

The commercial possibilities were discussed in February at the inaugural Algae World MENA 2013 Conference, Seminar and Summit in Dubai. “We’ve been approached by very large corporations internationally who want to take this to the next step as soon as possible,” Dr. Hernandez said. “We have the land, we have the space available, and we’re just looking for somebody who has the expertise and technology to scale up from pond size.”

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