Posted on November 25, 2012

Qatar University(QU) revealed groundbreaking research into the development of sustainable biofuels as it gave a tour of its facilities to the President of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization(ICAO) Roberto Gonzalez today, 25th November.

The state-backed QR45.5million biofuel project is the only one of its kind in the region. The team publicly detailed its latest progress for the first time, on the eve of the UN Climate Change conference COP-18, which opens in Doha, Qatar tomorrow (26th November).

The university’s project, in collaboration with Qatar Airways and Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) is now into its third year. From a standing start, where the labs were nothing more than empty rooms, the research team - part of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences - has developed state-of-the-art facilities which are the best in the GCC and competitive internationally for this type of research.

The aim of the project is to find a way of producing affordable, sustainable biofuels which do not rely on the use of valuable arable land and which can be produced efficiently in the punishing climate of Qatar. These fuels should provide an alternative source of energy, specifically for use by the airline industry. If successfully produced on a commercial scale, the discovery will have international ramifications - significantly reducing one of the airline industry’s biggest fixed costs and providing a sustainable, environmentally-friendly fuel where carbon dioxide is recycled rather than accumulating in the atmosphere.

The research team isolated multiple forms of single-celled photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria and microalgae), unique to Qatar. These are abundant in the waters of Qatar – they have been found in all environments such as the marinas at the Pearl-Qatar to the wastewaters of Abu Nakhla - and grow well in the extreme heat, strong sunlight and highly saline waters of Qatar.

The research group grew these cultures, eliminating weaker variations which do not respond so well to the Qatari environment and scaled up growth from small test-tubes to water tanks to monitor their growth. Then the fat – lipids – is extracted from the cultures to make fuel, while carbohydrate is used to make bioethanol. 

Having successfully grown them in the lab, the key test was how the cultures would develop in more real-life scenarios – outdoors, in larger-scale tanks.

The team then scaled up their tests to tanks of 1,500 litres situated outdoors, at QU’s research farm in Al Khor, to the north of Doha. Having grown them successfully for six weeks, the experiment is now being scaled up even further – to 25,000 litre, specially-designed outdoor research ponds. The ponds are currently being prepared by the team and they will soon be able to evaluate how their research will be able to be produced for industry.

If successful, the next step will be the construction of a pre-commercialization pilot plant on a much larger scale – 1.5million litres. The aviation industry has been keenly following the project throughout its stages.

ICAO President Mr Gonzalez and his delegation visited the labs at this crucial point to see first-hand how the project had developed. He was joined by QU President Prof. Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dr Eiman Mustafawi, Vice President for Research Dr Hassan Al-Derham, Head of the Department of Biological Sciences Dr Samir Jaoua and members of the biofuels research team.

Professor Al-Misnad said: “The research being conducted here could transform international aviation and help turn Qatar into a world producer of biofuels. As Qatar’s national university, we are always mindful of our role in advancing technology for the greater good of society. This project plays a key role in Qatar’s wider commitment to developing in an environmentally sustainable way and, if successful, will have benefits across the world.”

Biofuels Project Director Dr Malcolm Potts said: “There is a real push for fuel derived from organisms living on the planet – biofuels. The problem is that in many countries arable land is used for growing them.

“What we are doing here is working with photosynthetic 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 in Qatar, using new technologies not found anywhere else in the world.”

Leading a tour of the labs, Dr Potts added: “These are really world-class facilities. This is a one-stop-shop for the whole research process – from identifying the best organism for our purposes to growing it from a small scale onto increasingly larger scales.”

CIAO President Mr Gonzalez said: “We really welcome this project. It shows that different solutions are being applied to different areas around the globe – focusing on sustainability by using resources natural to the surroundings. What really stands out with the Qatar Biofuels project is that it is state-backed. It is a good example in the Arab region, showing a commitment to sustainability and the environment.”

Qatar Airways flies 3 times weekly to Belgrade, Serbia starting 20th November