Fuel & Food

Research facility produces fish, shrimp & biofuel in a desert ecosystem

A first-of-its-kind biofuel research facility in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates is currently operating as a way to tackle food and water security and create a sustainable source of fuel. The facility uses desert lands irrigated by seawater to raise farmed fish and shrimp for food, while also using wastewater to produce bioenergy for aviation. Former W&WD Associate Editor Sara Samovalov asked Imelda Mannion, project manager for CH2M, for more details about this multifaceted project.

Sara Samovalov: Please explain how the research facility works.

Imelda Mannion: The facility’s process is called an Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System, which combines biofuel feedstock cultivation with aquaculture production and mangrove silviculture. Seawater is first pumped into a series of aquaculture ponds where fish and shrimp are cultivated. Nutrient-rich wastewater from the ponds is then used to irrigate fields of salt-tolerant halophyte plants, from which the oil to produce biofuel is harvested. The runoff from the fields is then diverted through cultivated mangroves before being discharged back to the sea. These act as a natural polishing barrier to further extract nutrients and purify the water, storing carbon along the way.

In a best-case scenario, the nutrient-rich water from the aquaculture would replace the need for fertilizers in the system. It is hoped this will be proved over time.

Samovalov: How did you to select the plants and animals for this process? What types of plants are being harvested for biofuel?

Mannion: The plants and aquaculture were selected because of their resilience and ability to sustain the harsh conditions of the Gulf region.

Salicornia is the plant being harvested for biofuel. This is a halophyte, native to the region, which can be sustained in arid, desert conditions and does not require freshwater or arable land to grow. It can thrive while growing in water of high salinity, such as the seawater found in the Gulf.

Mangroves have long served as a carbon sink as they filter out nutrients from polluting the Gulf, and will sustainably polish the wastewater to a level almost matching seawater, before being discharged back to sea.

The aquaculture, shrimp and a high-resistance fish type, have been chosen to provide the right mix of nutrients to sustainably produce high yields.

Samovalov: Are there any challenges associated with building the first facility of its kind?

Mannion: There were many challenges in delivering this project, but with a collaborative approach with the client and innovative thinking, our team was able to make the complex pieces of the project fit together and deliver a working production and [research and development] facility. We drew on the experience gained through progressive projects over the past decade to work through complex irrigation challenges, the special requirements of salt-tolerant vegetation, and the engineering requirements for managing waters of a wide range of salinities.

Samovalov: When will the facility be completed?

Mannion: At present the facility is operational and being trialed through a commissioning planting cycle.

Samovalov: If the facility succeeds, what happens next?

Mannion: Assuming plant operation proves production and commercial viability, the aim is to scale up on a phased basis, initially with a 200-hectare site that will allow for planting on a scale that enables a more intensive fuel production, followed by larger-scale farms for commercial harvest.

Imelda Mannion is project manager for CH2M. Mannion is a strategically focused chartered civil engineer and experienced project manager for a range of water, wastewater, infrastructure and management consulting projects, previously in Ireland and now in the Middle East. She is focused on sustainability and innovation, and has a record of comprehensive and successful delivery on complex projects. Mannion can be reached at [email protected].

A Group Effort 

As the first of its kind in the world, the biofuel research facility seeks to create sustainable, alternative fuels that support food production and freshwater conservation. CH2M and its clients—Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium—along with industry, academia and government experts, worked for years to develop this second-generation biofuel.

“This is innovative research, which CH2M is proud and excited to collaborate on. Our specialists have extensive experience in the unique ecological and engineering requirements of halophyte cultivation, as well as agricultural development with biofuel/energy production and aquaculture study,” Mannion said. “We were excited to draw on this expertise and work in a collaborative way with the client to find a way to translate the research into an effective engineering solution.”