Qatar University revealed the first public details of its research into sustainable aviation biofuels made from marine organisms, to coincide with the opening of the UN climate change conference COP18 in Doha, the Qatari capital.
The state-backed £7.8m biofuel project is the only one of its kind in the region. Run by the university in collaboration with Qatar Airways and Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), it is now into its third year. In that time, the research team has developed state-of-the-art facilities from labs that were nothing more than empty rooms.
The project aims to produce affordable, sustainable biofuels that do not use valuable arable land and that can be produced efficiently in the punishing climate of Qatar. These fuels should provide an alternative source of energy for use by the airline industry. If successfully produced on a commercial scale, the discovery will have international ramifications - significantly reducing one of the industry’s biggest fixed costs and providing an environmentally-friendly fuel where carbon dioxide is recycled rather than accumulating in the atmosphere.
Team members isolated multiple forms of single-celled photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria and microalgae). These are locally unique but abundant and grow well in the extreme heat, strong sunlight and highly saline waters of Qatar.
The research group successfully grew these cultures in the lab, extracting the fat – lipids – to make fuel, while carbohydrate is used to make bioethanol. They then scaled up their tests to tanks of 1,500 litres situated outdoors at QU’s research farm north of Doha, where they grew the cultures successfully for six weeks. Now the experiment is being scaled up even further, to specially-designed 25,000-litre outdoor research ponds.
The step after that will be construction of a pilot plant on a much larger scale – 1.5million litres. The aviation industry has been keenly following the project throughout its stages.
Project manager Hareb al-Jabri said: “We are at an exciting and critical point in this project. If successful, it could help transform the international aviation industry.
“This project is a real example of successful state-backed collaboration, to find sustainable ways of enabling Qatar’s development which will have an impact across the world.”
Biofuels project director Dr Malcolm Potts added: “We are working with micro-organisms which can be grown anywhere, and which are particularly suitable to the environment of Qatar. We are trying to develop a biofuel industry here, using new technologies not found anywhere else in the world.
“We are also delighted that more than one-third of the 20-strong international Biofuel team comprises Qatari graduates of QU who bring to bear a high level of skill to the project.”