he global demand for fossil fuels is swelling against a tight economic environment and the Middle East is no exception. The domestic consumption of energy in the region is increasing at an astonishing rate. Saudi Arabia’s consumption of oil and gas has risen by approximately 5.9% over the past five years, while electricity demand is seeing an annual growth rate of 8%. Although Middle Eastern countries are the world’s leading producers of fossil fuels, several clean technology initiatives have been launched in the last few years, indicating the region’s commitment to exploiting renewable sources of energy.
Abu Dhabi’s Algae Research Laboratory and Microbial Environmental and Chemical Engineering Laboratory (MECEL) at the Mazdar Institute of Science and Technology is currently undertaking research that assesses and analyses algae-based fuel for the production of aviation and jet fuel.
Dubai-based Lootah Biofuels has signed a contract with Singapore-based algae oil producers AlgaOil Ltd. to enter into a new project where the two companies collaborate to develop raw materials for biofuels, such as algae, that contain a high oil content.
Lootah Biofuels will combine its local engineering with AlgaOil’s algae cultivation knowledge and infrastructure to set up a project to produce biofuel from algae. AlgaOil will utilise its high end research on cultivation of microalgae to set up open ponds for larger scale algae production.
Lootah is also conducting comprehensive research in this field with optimizations of photobioreactors and solar powered, open pond constructions for large-scale algae production to ascertain the benefits of producing algae in the Middle East. Lootah Biofuel research includes the uses of the high value algae biomass as fish food for fish hatcheries.
The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), an independent scientific organization, is funding a project called Saudi Arabia Biorefinery from Algae (SABA project) to screen lipid hyper-producer species in Saudi Arabian coastal waters. These species will be the basis for next generation algal biofuel production. The goal of this project is to increase research and training in microalgae-based biofuel production as well as algal biomass, with an additional goal of using a biorefinery approach that can strongly enhance the Saudi Arabia economy, society and environment within the next ten years.
Found in the Middle Eastern deserts, the availability of algae is high. It can withstand extreme temperatures, can live under high salinity ranges – one of the highest to date of any algae species – and can be used throughout the year, offering a long harvesting season. The strains of algae are not expected to compete with the fresh water supply or with food production in the region. As such, a properly designed and constructed algae growth facility will not have a disruptive impact on the marine ecosystem of the Arabian Gulf.
In theory, the prospect of algae-based biofuels for the Middle East is appealing. With year-round sun and mild winters, most of the Middle Eastern countries have access to seawater with plenty of non-arable land for algae cultivation.
Algae biofuels are an attractive proposition for Middle Eastern countries to offset the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry. The region is highly suitable for the mass production of algae due to several factors:
- Presence of large tracts of non-arable lands and extensive coastline
- Presence of numerous oil refineries and power plants to capture CO2 and desalination plants for salt reuse
- Extremely favorable climatic conditions (highest annual solar irradiance)
- Presence of a large number of sewage and wastewater treatment plants
- Existence of highly lipid productive microalgae species in coastal waters
In the Middle East, investors have confidence in the market demand as a measure of long-term opportunity in transportation fuels and petrochemical derivatives. The early leaders in advanced algal and microbial fuels are therefore diversifying and targeting existing petrol, diesel and aviation markets, as well as related biofuels markets for green chemicals, polymers and power generation. The diversification of biofuels companies beyond one fuel – ethanol and biodiesel – to include a portfolio of advanced biofuels represents a wise long-term strategy to inspire investor confidence.
Military, aviation, government, and petrochemical organizations all demand fungible, drop-in fuels and prefer to work with advantaged producers with scalable technologies for R&D and deployment. Algae leaders that have established pilot and demonstration scale projects, in addition to biodiesel and ethanol, are able to produce drop-in replacement fuels from microalgae, cyanobacteria and other microbes.
These factors make it imperative on Middle East nations to develop a robust research, development and market deployment plan for a comprehensive microalgal biomass-based biorefinery approach for bioproduct synthesis. An integrated and gradual appreciation of technical, economic, social and environmental issues should be considered for the successful implementation of the microalgae-based oleo-feedstock (MBOFs) industry in the region.
Imran Khan is Operations Analyst at Lootah Biofuels, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates