The world's first research facility to grow both food and fuel, using desert lands irrigated by seawater, has started operations on a two-hectare site in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.
The facility, operated by Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, is funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a group advancing the aviation industry's commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by developing a clean, sustainable and alternative fuel supply.
The research facility uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilizes plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production.
The salt-tolerant halophyte plants - whose commercial potential is relatively unexplored - thrive in arid, desert conditions and don't require fresh water or arable land to grow.
In the last step of the system, wastewater is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, further removing nutrients and providing valuable carbon storage, before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.
If the technology proves viable at this smaller-scale, further expansion will continue with the ultimate ambition to scale up to a 200-hectare demonstration site.
"Research and innovation underpin the UAE's ability to overcome environmental and social challenges, such as food and water security, while protecting our ecosystems, from our coastlines to our deserts," said Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, in a statement.
"This project will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence."
The UAE imports roughly 90 percent of its food - at a cost, that if left unchecked, is predicted to increase 300 percent over the next decade, the statement said.
Dr Behjat Al Yousuf, interim provost of Masdar Institute, a graduate research-based university in Abu Dhabi, added: "Energy, water and food security are key, interlinked needs for the UAE. Masdar Institute is committed to supporting the country's strategic goals, and we are proud to be operating this research facility.
"The cutting-edge bioenergy facility also provides an example of how collaboration produces real and valuable outcomes, and will thus inspire and attract further research to Abu Dhabi."
Aquaculture - industrial fish or shellfish farming - is one of the world's fastest expanding food sectors, with a current growth rate of about 6 percent a year. While aquaculture systems can reduce a nation's dependence on foreign food and improve security, they pose environmental challenges due to the impact of nutrient-rich effluents flowing into the ocean.
Masdar Institute, together with Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP, were the founding members of SBRC. TAKREER, the Abu Dhabi oil refining company, along with Safran and GE Aviation, have since joined the research group.
The goal of the research facility is to demonstrate the viability of an integrated bioenergy production system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up.