Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, is a ‘living laboratory’, in the words of Professor Taha Ouarda. ‘It is a pioneering experiment whose lessons and results need to be used to duplicate the experiment in other places,’ he adds.
This need is due to the focus of the experiment. ‘The elements most important in this region are water and energy,’ notes Ouarda, who heads the iWater water and environment centre at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
He points out that 98% of municipal drinking water in the UAE is provided by desalination, while at the same time agriculture uses large quantities of fossil groundwater which is leading to its rapid depletion. ‘The challenges are large, and the government is very aware of this. That is why the government is launching a number of initiatives, including the Masdar one,’ adds Ouarda.
As a technical institute, the Masdar Institute is focused on developing the solutions needed to respond to these challenges. To do so, it takes an integrated approach both in how it works and to the types of technologies that are being developed. This includes thinking at a regional level. ‘We have no choice but to proceed this way,’ says Ouarda. ‘We cannot live independently of others. We need to import, we need to export, so we need to optimise how much we are going to be providing and where to produce it by looking at the regional level.’
This integrated approach shapes how the institute as a whole works. The links between the various iCenters is very strong. For example, Ouarda points out that the UAE wind atlas produced through climate modelling, which is among the expertise of the iWater centre, is used by the institute’s iEnergy centre to assess wind energy potential and where wind farms could be located.
The integrated approach is also apparent in the types of projects underway. Ouarda mentions, for example, the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) which includes among others Boeing, Etihad, Honeywell UOP, GE Aviation, the Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company Takreer, and Safran. SBRC works on supporting the aviation industry’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by developing sustainable and alternative fuel supplies. Seawater is used in coastal desert environments to raise fish and shrimp for food. Nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilizes salt-tolerant halophyte plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production. Then the wastewater is further cleaned by feeding a cultivated mangrove forest which removes nutrients and provides carbon storage. ‘It is an example of how the water, food and energy sectors are interlinked. You cannot separate them,’ adds Ouarda.
Other work at the iWater centre includes efforts by the Desalination Research Group to push back the possibilities for desalination. ‘The desal group here is one of the strongest in the institute,’ says Ouarda. One project in particular is bringing together leading technologies to create the first desalination plant driven fully by solar power. ‘It is a pioneering project,’ he comments.
Ouarda’s personal expertise is in hydroclimate modelling, and this forms part of the work of the iWater Hydro-Climate Modeling Laboratory. ‘Sustainable development is only possible if solutions can be geared towards future conditions. This can only be done by understanding the characteristics, the dynamics, the processes that drive our climate in the region,’ he adds.
‘The vision here at Masdar is part of a global vision of the leaders of the UAE to develop a knowledge-based society. Our vision is to use the scientific knowledge to meet the local challenges first and then use developed technologies to solve regional problems and become an exporter of knowledge and technology,’ concludes Ouarda.