Year-round production, plenty of sun (and thus: high yields) and an abundance of “free” non-productive land. This makes the Qatar desert the ideal place to grow algae. PhD candidate Kira Schipper investigated the possibilities.
There is too much rather than too little sun in the Qatar desert for algae, says Schipper, who has lived in Qatar since 2011 and works at the local university’s algae department. ‘The algae grow really well outside but may die if they are exposed to too much UV light.’
Schipper and her colleagues identified some 200 local algae, most of which grow in saltwater. She tested one breed in her university’s lab. This particular alga produces a blue pigment that is used as an ingredient for pharmaceutical products and make-up. The proteins contained in this alga can be used in animal feed.
Schipper is currently testing the algae production in 200-litre tanks filled with saltwater in the desert. She investigates what light intensity is optimal for algae production and what effect uncontrolled circumstances outside the lab have on the production. Water evaporation is an issue. ‘As more water evaporates, the saline level of the water increases. Algae are well able to handle salty conditions, but at some point, the water becomes too saline. We are now testing whether we can add sweet water from a purification plant.’
Schipper expects extensive algae production in Qatar in the coming years. ‘The government interest and financial support in Qatar are considerable, the electricity required is cheap, and this also allows us to sequester CO2.’ One of Schipper’s colleagues is testing an alga that produces omega-3 fatty acids, which is suitable as chicken and fish feed. The Qatar university now considers combining algae production with fish farming in the desert.
Kira Schipper obtained her PhD from Bioprocess Engineering professors René Wijffels and Maria Barbosa on 8 June.