“Although the research employs local biological feedstocks, the product will be of a global interest and will come under the umbrella of the world's effort to find alternative energy sources and to reduce the greenhouse gases,” said the principal investigator Mohab Al-Hinai, assistant professor in the department of biology, Sultan Qaboos University (SQU).
With increasing concern about global warming and dwindling oil supplies, attention is turning to green processes that use sustainable and environment-friendly feedstocks to produce renewable energy such as biofuel. Also called “green gold” fuels, biofuels are renewable resources and carbon-neutral.
Thus, they offer the promise for energy security and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Under the project, research will be performed to develop an economical and competitive process for biofuel production (ethanol, butanol and biogas) from biological and agricultural waste. Furthermore, biofuel production from native algae and other microorganisms, isolated directly from different ecosystems in Oman, will be tested.
Speaking to Muscat Daily, Mohab explained that this research was important and could be path-breaking for the renewable energy industry. The research aims to use agricultural waste (such as date palm pits) or other photosynthetic microorganism (such as Cyanobacteria).
“We will be using algal biomass, which is produced by photosynthesis, not to directly produce biofuels but rather to use it as feedstock for another microbe called Clostridium acetobutylicum which can ferment this biomass to biofuels,” he said explaining the process. “We want to use date palm pits (for the same reason as above) ie feed-stock for Clostridium acetobutylicum. Additionally, we want to use the date palm pits themselves to produce biodiesel,” added Mohab.
The production process will be optimised under laboratory conditions in order to maximise biofuel yield and minimise production costs. Engineering tools will be used to genetically manipulate key microorganisms in order to increase their physiological activities and to improve their survival during the fermentation process.
“Most of this research will be applied to the key organism, Clostridium acetobutylicum but will also include other promising native microorganisms. After identifying the most suitable microbes and fermentation conditions for biofuel production, large-scale production will be attempted in a set-up similar to the real industrial set-up, where the final results will demonstrate a conceptual design of biofuel production based on a bio-refinery concept,” said Ala'a al Muhtaseb, the other principal investigator of the study.
“Large amounts of algae feedstock will be produced by growing them in outdoor ponds, which is very cost-effective given the available sunlight throughout the year in Oman,” added Muhtaseb. Mohab said that this was a TRC project, under Open Research Grant Programme, involving a multidisciplinary team from the department of Biology (College of Science) and from the department of Petroleum and Chemical Engineering (College of Engineering). The two other co-investigators are Dr Lamya al Haj and Dr Raeid Abed.
“We received the funding last September and have purchased some specialised equipment that are in the process of being delivered. So far, we have done some preliminary sample collection and analysis and are in the process of optimising the substrate treatment and purification,” said Mohab.