x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

First batch of Masdar students get ready for workplace

The institute continues to pursue three main goals: growing human capital, conducting groundbreaking research and developing sustainable partnerships with the corporate sector.

Abdul Matlin is a research assistant at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Researchers at the institute focus on renewable energy, power grids, waste and water treatment.
Abdul Matlin is a research assistant at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Researchers at the institute focus on renewable energy, power grids, waste and water treatment.

ABU DHABI // The main task set for Masdar Institute when it was established in the capital in 2007 was to help the emirate move away from oil to a knowledge-based economy.

To make that goal a reality, the local market needs highly skilled talent. And Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, the president of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, says the region's first research-based university is well on its way to providing that talent.

The emirate will soon begin to see the first fruits of the institute's labour as its first batch of students enter the job market with master's degrees in chemical, environmental and electrical power engineering, and materials and computer science.

To the layman, five years might seem like a long wait for results. But in the world of academia, Masdar Institute's progress is admirable, says Dr Moavenzadeh.

"When talking about academic institutions, I always use the analogy of supertankers: they are very hard to manoeuvre," says Dr Moavenzadeh, a former faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and consultant to the World Bank and various United Nations agencies.

And the institute has done more than add to the skills pool. On the research front, Masdar Institute has already published 240 articles in scientific journals and filed 21 invention disclosures.

Researchers here focus on renewable energy, power grids, waste and water treatment - all areas where innovation is necessary if the UAE and the rest of the world are to improve their environmental footprint.

Dr Moavenzadeh says the institute encourages research projects that are expected to have short-term and intermediate effects as well as projects that will translate into technologies in the long-term - that is, within a decade or so.

To explain the significance of this, Dr Moavenzadeh uses the example of vacuum tubes, which were important in the early days of electronic devices and were used to make computers, radios and television sets.

A lot of research went into improving vacuum tubes, which conducted and switched electric signals within a device. But when transistors took over the market in the early 1950s, they revolutionised the field.

"The research into vacuum tubes became obsolete," says Dr Moavenzadeh.

This is why, he says, it is important to encourage students to look into ideas that will have an impact in the long run.

An example of one such area of research is synthetic photosynthesis. The concept is still far from producing practical applications but is being investigated as a promising way of producing energy. Researchers aim to replicate photosynthesis, a natural process, which allows plants to convert light into sugar.

Research that is expected to yield results in the medium term involves using water-growing algae to clean waste water, while at the same time producing biomass or oil for fuels.

Another exciting project under way at the institute - one that could have significant implications for the UAE - is research seeking to develop materials that make reverse osmosis desalination more efficient and less costly to maintain.

A third goal for Masdar Institute is to help set up partnerships between scientists and companies that can market their inventions. The institute is proposing to create a centre where inventions can be tested and offered to investors.

"It is very helpful as a first step in getting innovations to the marketplace," says Dr Moavenzadeh.

He says the centre will solicit "proposals from those who believe they have ideas that can be translated into innovation".

Proposals will be screened by an expert panel and the best 12 will receive funding to prove their concept over a period of up to 18 months.

Once the projects are completed, they will be presented to venture capitalists who are interested in forming businesses around them.

Once it is fully functional the centre may require up to US$2.5million (Dh9.1m) in funding. The idea is being reviewed by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi clean energy company.

"We have put together a white paper and a proposal for the Masdar investment committee and we hope this will get off the ground and moving," says Dr Moavenzadeh.