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Masdar Institute student Ahmed Al Harithi at work on his research project exploring the potential for local strains of algae to produce biofuel for the UAE. Mike Malate / Masdar Institute
Masdar Institute student Ahmed Al Harithi at work on his research project exploring the potential for local strains of algae to produce biofuel for the UAE. Mike Malate / Masdar Institute

'Eureka moment' gives home a new fuel for the future

A simple suggestion during a standard orientation presentation led to one student's discovery of a potential alternative energy source available in the Abu Dhabi desert.

A simple suggestion during a standard orientation presentation led to one student's discovery of a potential alternative energy source available in the open deserts of his home emirate of Abu Dhabi.

"Dr Robert Baldwin was presenting the subject of algal biofuels and their potential in the UAE to the students of a chemical engineering programme when he told us to look for 'green water' in the ocean to find algae," recalls Ahmed Al Harithi, a Masdar Institute second year chemical engineering master's student.

"I immediately thought of the very 'green' water pools scattered across the deserts of Abu Dhabi. That was my 'Eureka moment' that lead me to my thesis research project."

Mr Al Harithi, a 27-year old Baniyas City native, turned his attention to exploring the types of algae growing in water pools in the Al Wathbah region of Abu Dhabi. After cultivating many samples in his lab, he found one that shows good potential as a source of biofuel.

With his research, which is focused on identifying, cultivating and genetically modifying local algae strains best suited for biofuels and other processes, he hopes to help make the country more sustainable and prosperous with the production of algae-based fuels and derivatives.

"For me, the main attraction in researching algal biofuels is that it has great potential for the UAE. Our fresh water sources and fertile lands are very limited, and only a very narrow range of crops are cultivable in our hot climate.

"However, microalgae could be cultivated in almost any climate, in non-arable lands, and even using saline water.

"Therefore, we could have a huge untapped sustainable potential that could establish a new industry and reduce our carbon footprint, and that is what attracts me to research native algae strains in the UAE."

Mr Al Harithi, who joined Masdar Institute in autumn 2011 after being granted a study leave by Abu Dhabi Gas Industries (Gasco), is part of a new generation of young Emiratis who feel it is their duty to give back to their country in a new way and help it develop even further.

He hopes to take his education and training gained at Masdar Institute forward into a career that benefits the UAE and his fellow Emiratis.

"My motivation stems from my background as a process engineer and an operation supervisor in Habshan, one of the largest gas processing plants in the world.

"During my four years in Habshan, I witnessed first-hand the immense efforts put in by the previous generations of Emirati engineers and technicians to establish the oil and gas industry that nourished our nation.

"Therefore, I can't help but to feel that it is the responsibility of our generation to ignite the shift to a sustainable future.

"I am looking forward to seeing my thesis in the algal biofuels through, either by continuing my research and taking it a few steps further, or by implementation of algal biofuels processes based on the algae strains that I isolated."

And he is already well on his way to seeing his ambitions realised. In the less than two years since he joined Masdar Institute, he has already filed an invention disclosure with Masdar Institute's Technology Transfer Office, gained invaluable experience working with an elite team of professors, lab engineers, and students and even won fifth place in a campus photography competition.

By the time he finishes his master's degree in 2013, he hopes to have added just that little bit extra to the UAE's options and opportunities for sustainable energy and further prosperity.

"I am hoping to engineer a native algae strain that will biofuel production feasible in the UAE, and possibly other processes."

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