UAE pioneers unprecedented flying fish pilot project in Masdar City

Vision explores the potential global impact of aquaculture and algae to make biofuel for aviation industry

The bland grey shoals of freshwater tilapia and white Indian shrimp wriggling in Masdar City’s six new aquaculture ponds look to be common farm-raised species, but as their scales dance and gleam in Abu Dhabi’s desert sun, we’re reminded of their previously untapped magical properties as flying fish.

The practice of aquaculture, or industrial fish and shellfish farming – is one of the world’s fastest growing food sectors growing at six per cent a year. And when the UAE imports around 90 per cent of its food, a figure set to grow by 300 per cent in 10 years, the mantra ‘fish are food, not friends’ has to be the action plan.

But sustainable food security is not the primary focus of Masdar’s super fish, which are specifically bred for biofuel. In launching the world’s first food and fuel research facility, The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – funded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) – is helping Etihad Airways compete in the global air travel sector as it transitions to biofuel and looks to secure a supply chain of non-fossil fuel.

The SBRC includes founding members Boeing, Etihad Airways and process developer Honeywell UOP, as well as General Electric, Safran and Abu Dhabi oil refining company Takreer, and will use desert lands irrigated by seawater for the first-of-its-kind project. 

How does it work? A system of ponds, fields and basins use coastal seawater to develop fish and shrimp for food. The nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish then fertilizes salt-tolerant halophyte plants that thrive in arid, desert conditions and are rich in oils which are then harvested for aviation biofuel production. The waste water is then diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea. The halophytes and mangroves then provide biomass for energy.

“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,” he said.

The UAE leads the way when it comes to fish-to-fuel aquaculture, but as the research facilities' pilot model can simulate ecosystems and environments in regions other than Abu Dhabi’s, we may see such projects all over the world in future. In the meantime, Vision charts how other countries are pioneering biofuel in a similarly pioneering fashion…

US Bren Smith, based in New Haven, Connecticut, won $100,000 in the 2015 Fuller Challenge, one of the most prestigious prizes in sustainability for his vertical ocean farming system that only grows restorative crops, such as seaweed and shellfish, to produce food, fertilizer, animal feed, cosmetics and biofuel. He says GreenWave is capable of producing 30 times more biofuel than soybeans and five times more biofuel than corn – without polluting the food chain.

Australia The Australian biofuels sector is projected to double by 2020 and the Institute of Molecular Bioscience has keenly responded by developing commercially viable fuels by experimenting with native algae species. UQ Solar Biofuels Rsearch Centre Manager Dr. Stephens indicates says that Australia has the potential to export oil like the Middle East by earmarking just one per cent of land to algae farms.

China Two-thirds of the world’s aquaculture production is based in China and predominantly used to contribute two-thirds of the world’s global supply. However, the Republic reportedly signed a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo in October 2015 to grow 2.8m hectares of palm oil and leased 2m hectares in Zambia specifically for biofuels projects. But a new enzyme in algae that makes hydrocarbons that was discovered last month by Chinese scientists could enable large scale fuel-grade oil production in the country itself.

UK The UK has previous when it comes to innovative biofuel projects. In 2008 the Carbon Trust announced a £26m project to develop transport fuels made from algae by 2020. The world’s biggest publicly funded project hopes that algal biofuels will replace a high ratio of the fossil fuels used by UK drivers and planes.