Latest comments by Professor Jabbour! (I Googled "KAUST Jabbour" to make sure I wrote down his title at KAUST correctly, and came across this article. It's subscribtion only, but the cashed version has the entire article.)
For those that don't know yet; Professor Jabbour is chief science officer at Quantum Materials Corporation, and also the director of the Solar and Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center at KAUST. A Future Minus Oil Anticipating the end of their source of wealth, Persian Gulf universities study alternative energy
January 30, 2011 Abu Dhabi's Masdar Institute, one of the ambitious new research centers in the Persian Gulf region studying alternative sources of energy, is built on an elevated platform to take maximum advantage of desert breezes, and is powered entirely by rooftop solar panels. By Ursula Lindsey Doha, Qatar
The countries of the Persian Gulf, whose wealth depends largely on their reserves of oil and natural gas, may not seem the likeliest patrons of green technology. Governments across the Arabian Peninsula, however, are establishing programs and institutes dedicated to research into alternative energy and environmental sustainability. In state-of-the-art facilities, scientists and graduate students from around the world are working on developing more-affordable solar cells, more-efficient desalination processes, and new biofuels for aviation.
"It's very rewarding to see that the leadership of this part of the world has decided to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem," says Fred Moavenzadeh, president of the Masdar Institute, a graduate center dedicated to environmental research and financed by the government of Abu Dhabi
Carbon-based wealth has fueled the enormous growth of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, among other countries in the region. But it has also created mounting environmental problems. These rapidly developing desert countries depend on oil-powered desalination plants for most of their water, to such a degree that salinity levels in the Persian Gulf have risen noticeably in the past few decades. Billions of dollars go to subsidize access to water and electricity. Cities have grown so quickly that they are struggling to dispose safely of their garbage and sewage.
But with oil-and-gas reserves expected to run out this century, such largess is becoming untenable.
Masdar and similar new research centers around the Persian Gulf have more than one purpose. Governments hope they will help find solutions to such problems. The centers could also be training grounds for a new generation of local scientists. And green technologies can spur commercial innovation and bring some diversity to oil-dependent economies.
"Truly, there are going to be future economic activities that are going to emerge from the concern over the environment," says Mr. Moavenzadeh. "Most of those technologies are going to be high-end and proprietary, and they [local governments] could get economic returns for them."
But the research institutions are all in the beginning—some still in the planning—stages. The researchers working there are excited by the environmental challenges but say it's too soon to know what impact their work will have. A long-term political and financial commitment is required, they say. So are linkages between industry and universities, and a research culture that as yet barely exists in the region. An Integrated Approach
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, in the desert on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, is the United Arab Emirates' flagship venture into alternative-energy research. The $1-billion, self-powered campus is a testing ground for environmental building techniques. Erected on an elevated platform to catch desert breezes, it is serviced by a fleet of electrical cars that run underneath it. A wind tower directs breezes into the main courtyard, while solar panels on the roofs provide all of the power for the campus.
Research at the graduate-level university focuses on the production, storage, and delivery of clean energy; on issues of water use and climate change; and on energy and environmental policy.
The Abu Dhabi government provides the center's $120-million to 130-million annual budget, "with the expectation that we will be able to attract outside sponsorship as well," says Scott Kennedy, assistant dean for research. Priority is given to research projects that "have high relevance to Abu Dhabi and the region," he says.
Mr. Kennedy himself is involved in a five-year pilot project, supported by Honeywell UOP, Boeing, and the emirates' Etihad Airways, to grow crops for aviation biofuel along Abu Dhabi's coastline. The fuel will be the final product of a complicated cycle that includes fish and shrimp farms, mangrove, and an oily seawater plant called salicornia.
Waste from the seafood farms will be used to fertilize the crops of salicornia. The salicornia and mangrove, by absorbing most of the waste, will keep the sea uncontaminated. Finally the salicornia will be processed into jet fuel. And all on desert coastal land "that's worthless for anything else," says Mr. Kennedy.
The project is one example of Masdar's integrated approach. Plans call for the institute to be surrounded eventually by Masdar City, a green metropolis that should be a good laboratory for testing sustainable technologies.
But such an ambitious, all-inclusive venture will also take considerable time to mature—and will require unstinting financial and political support. After the global financial crisis in 2008, the budget for Masdar City was decreased from $22-billion to $16-billion, and its completion date pushed back from 2016 to between 2020 and 2025.
The budget of the institute itself has been unaffected by the crisis, says Mr. Moavenzadeh, and "even though there may be a few years of delay, nevertheless the city is moving ahead." That is important, he says, because Masdar can't exist in "a cocoon" but needs "to interact with the rest of society and convince them that the fruit of our knowledge is extremely important, and that they need to capture it." Jump-Starting an Industry
Given the year-round sunshine in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the principal areas of interest for the region's new research institutes is solar energy. "People here realized a while ago that energy must be diversified if they want to stay competitive," says Ghassan Jabbour, director of the Solar and Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, commonly known as Kaust. "It makes sense to them, right? They are in the middle of the sun belt, and they have the financial resources to jump-start a whole alternative-energy/solar-energy industry."
Kaust opened in 2009, with a $10-billion endowment from King Abdullah. Researchers there focus on areas such as clean combustion, water desalination and reuse, coral-reef ecosystems, and the development of salt- and drought-resistant crops.
Across the region, researchers are working on adapting solar panels to the Persian Gulf's particular weather conditions, which include high levels of dust, haze, and humidity along the coasts. The goal is to produce solar cells with a 20-percent efficiency rate (the standard rate) at a competitive price. "Our aim is to cost even less than other forms of energy," says Mr. Jabbour, who left Arizona State University to join Kaust last year. With oil so cheap in the region, he observes, "nobody will be interested in solar if it's expensive." If he and his colleagues succeed, they "will transfer this know-how to industry to set up larger fabrication processes."
Saudi Arabia may have been built on oil, but it increasingly sees its future in solar energy, says Mr. Jabbour, who notes that his lab is discussing several partnerships with industry. "Some of the biggest companies in Saudi are big supporters of solar. Some companies have a stake in the material that goes into making solar cells, some companies have an interest in harnessing the energy, some companies have an interest in the delivery systems." Niche Inventions
An interest in alternative energy is shared by Saudi Arabia's wealthy neighbor Qatar.
The small country has the world's third-largest reserves of natural gas and one of the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world. Nonetheless, "Qatar wants to be a role model," says Nesrin Ozalp, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering on Texas A&M's campus there. "They don't want to just buy technology, but to develop and to do it an environmentally clean way."
The core of Qatar's research program in alternative energy comprises the labs of Texas A&M, which set up operations in the emirate's Education City development in 2003.
"Qatar was the perfect location for me," says Ms. Ozalp, who invented a reactor that uses locally plentiful solar energy and natural gas to produce hydrogen and carbon black (a carbon byproduct used in car tires and conveyor belts). "I wanted to take advantage of the energy reserves here," she says. "Natural gas is abundant, but we have to find something before it runs out, so that we can prolong the natural gas."
Ms. Ozalp heads Texas A&M's Sustainable Energy Research Laboratory in Qatar, which has a $2.2-million annual budget from the Qatar National Research Fund. She refined her prototype reactor in collaboration with the Qatar Science & Technology Park and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Germany. A commercial version is expected to be on the market this year.
Qatar, hoping to see more inventions like that, is creating an Energy and Environment Research Institute, to be modeled on the National Cancer Institute in the United States. "It will present researchers with a challenge, and they will decide how to work on it," says Abdelali Haoudi, vice president for research at the nonprofit Qatar Foundation, which finances the institute. The institute—which will be fully operational in three to four years—will focus on solar and renewable energy, water desalination, green architecture, and carbon capture (ways to trap and store carbon emissions).
The greatest challenge is one of scale. "Qatar is very small, and the number of very skilled people who can do this kind of work is even smaller," says Mr. Haoudi. "Our main challenge is the availability of scientists and experts in the various research fields. ... In the long term, the solution is the Science Leadership Program," a government-sponsored project that sends Qatari students abroad to pursue doctorates. "In the short term, it's trying to attract the best scientists" from around the world. Courting the Best
Attracting such scientists, however, isn't always easy for institutions that are just starting to make a name.
"Recruitment of quality people is a challenge," says Ms. Ozalp, of Texas A&M. "It takes knowledge and patience" to build a community of world-class scientists. "It's not easy to court high-caliber students, even in the U.S.," says Mr. Jabbour, of Kaust. "In our case, it's a little bit of an extra effort, because this part of the world is not known. If I'm competing against Harvard, Harvard has a history, it's established. Here we're trying to establish ourselves."
Perhaps for that reason, some Persian Gulf countries have started institutions in collaboration with Western universities. Abu Dhabi, for example, arranged with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to collaborate in the creation of the Masdar Institute.
"The MIT connection gives people a comfort level with what this institution is. It might have been harder without that to convince people how legitimate we are," says Mr. Kennedy, the assistant dean for research. Researchers are attracted to Masdar by "the commitment to alternative energy and sustainability and knowing you're working in a community of people focused on these challenging problems that require multidisciplinary approaches." Others have been drawn by the chance to start dream labs from scratch. When he considered a job at Kaust, says Mr. Jabbour, he thought, "Saudi Arabia—why would I want to go there and leave the U.S.?" Then "I saw the facilities and the location. I sat with the leadership, and they ... committed to give me what I need to build a unique lab." Running "a complete start-up" has its advantages, he says. "You go to any other university and you can't start with this massive amount of equipment and build your own cherry-picked team."
Administrators are confident that with time they will be able to attract enough talented scientists. As Mr. Haoudi, of the Qatar Foundation, notes, "Scientists are looking for two things: exciting research projects and funding. We have both."
On the other hand, while financing is not a problem, logistics can be. It is costly and time-consuming to ship equipment to labs in the Persian Gulf, researchers tell The Chronicle. Machinery that scientists are used to having easily manufactured may be hard to come by locally. And the research institutes—the first of their kind in this part of the world—exist in something of a vacuum. For them to succeed requires the creation of new legal and commercial infrastructure.
Local authorities are eager to find commercial applications for Masdar's research, says Mr. Kennedy. "But the awareness of how to do this is missing. There is less understanding of how to take an idea generated in a lab to a commercial product." The region, he says, still must develop "not just a research culture, but industry linkages."
"Developing start-ups, developing incubators, getting into the market" are all necessary steps for environmental research to yield marketable green innovations, says Mr. Moavenzadeh, of Masdar. "Obviously, technology is necessary but not sufficient. ... One of the issues we face is the issue of intellectual-property rights. What are the laws with regards to IP here? How well are they protected? How soon can we get a patent here?" Competition vs. Collaboration
These are questions that each institution is dealing with on its own. Despite their proximity and shared interests, there is little regional cooperation. In fact, "collaboration is not very frequent in this part of the world," says Mr. Haoudi. Within their respective countries, the new research institutions are creating links with other universities. "We have to start forming networks, because we can't do everything ourselves," says Mr. Jabbar
(I think this is a spelling error of Jabbour's name
). "It has to be a national effort, not just a local effort." Saudi Arabia has recently created energy-and-environment-research centers at several of its national universities. A certain amount of competition is natural and even desirable, say the researchers. "You have to establish your own identity first and be one of the leaders in a particular area in alternative energy" before embarking on regional collaboration, says Mr. Jabbour.
But institutes in the smaller countries, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, know they don't have the numbers or the clout to go it alone.
"Everybody is basically thinking they're the only game in town, ... but none of us have critical mass," says Mr. Moavenzadeh. His institute is already networking with other universities in the United Arab Emirates, but eventually, he says, "we have to make it on a regional basis. ... It's extremely important that we speak on certain issues with a single voice: on the need for R&D funding, the need for a certain degree of coordination in moving universities toward the policies and strategies of government."
The research being embarked upon will show results in the next five to 10 years. It may be several decades before its commercial applications become visible and, possibly, reshape the region's economies. Researcherssay it is simply too soon to tell whether this century will witness a green Persian Gulf, dotted with solar farms, and whether alternative-energy research will be a catalyst for innovation in the region. But "if there's a commitment to fund quality research, and there are institutions that maintain high standards," says Mr. Kennedy, "it can be done."