Khalifa University’s Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS), the world’s first research facility to grow both food and fuel using desert lands irrigated by seawater, has received a major upgrade to improve the pilot facility’s performance and the healthy growth of its salt-tolerant plants and fish.
Back in January, the oil-rich seeds of the plants grown in the SEAS facility, which is the flagship project under KU’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), were used to produce the first batch of biofuel that was combined with traditional jet fuel to power the world’s first commercial flight using locally produced sustainable halophyte-based fuel, on an Etihad Airways Boeing 787 from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam.
The major achievement was a testament to the commercial potential of the SEAS project. But to those most intimate with the work, it highlighted the importance of continuous improvement. The researchers identified significant structural improvements to the facility that would enable better yields of the salt-loving plant known as Salicornia and the growth of a wider range of fish species.
“Given that the SEAS concept had not been attempted in such a way before, the initial design of the aquaculture ponds tried to mimic natural conditions as much as possible, but this, we realized, was not the most optimal design,” said Hendrik Visser, Program Manager for the SEAS at Khalifa University. Visser is working with Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC, and Jose Barron and Nahla Mezhoud, both Research Engineers, to optimize the Salicornia’s harvest yields. In addition to refurbishing the facility, the team is exploring other crop management practices to obtain high yields, such as planting different quality of seeds and other factors.
“Preparation of the fields, such as tilling, leveling, and sowing, volume of irrigation, quality of the water and seeding density (plants per square meter), play a crucial role in the agronomic performance of the plants,” Barron explained.
The team is implementing a new sowing pattern – rows instead of concentric circles, facilitating much better coverage of the fields in less time. The plants will be ready for harvesting by the end of September. The final yield of the harvest will help the researchers understand the optimal growing season of the plant in the UAE’s harsh environmental conditions of high salinity and very high summer temperatures and humidity.
Perhaps the most important considerations the team has made to optimize crop yields are the corrective works to the facility. The six aquaculture ponds at the SEAS facility underwent a complete refurbishment that spanned seven months. The work consisted of excavating, setting new foundations, reshaping the ponds, installing a new liner, and reconfiguring the drainage pipes.
The newly shaped ponds hold a bigger volume of water and have a sump at the bottom that helps drain the fish waste to the bottom of the pond and provides better conditions for the fish to grow during the hot summer. These new conditions will allow researchers to explore the potential of growing other fish species that may be more attractive to the UAE market. An additional benefit that has already been observed as a consequence of the newly refurbished ponds is a significant increase in the flow and quality of water for irrigation of the Salicornia fields.
“This is the third season that the Salicornia bigelovii crop is being cultivated at the SEAS facility. By the end of September, when fields are harvested and the biomass has been fully processed (dried, ground, and winnowed), the seed yield will help to build on the knowledge with regards to the best agronomic practices for cultivating the Salicornia bigelovii,” Barron added.
Finding the optimal yield potential of the Salicornia will boost the production of sustainable fuel, and such management practices must be properly adopted.
“The SEAS is an unprecedented project – it is an integrated system that ticks the UAE’s boxes for promoting energy sustainability, food security, carbon footprint reduction, and training and employing high-tech professionals in the future knowledge economy,” Dr. Rios said. “We will continue to investigate ways to further enhance the facility’s performance in order to boost the production of sustainable fuel and food. Our efforts will be particularly valuable as we enter our next phase of development, which involves scaling up this pilot facility to a 200-hectare facility, where we will demonstrate the feasibility of the SEAS concept at a commercial scale.”
The SEAS project is being conducted under the Masdar Institute, one of KU’s flagship research institutes that serve as interdisciplinary research units focused on long-term strategic priorities. The Masdar Institute focuses primarily on sustainable energy, water and the environment.