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June 14, 2024
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2024/6/5

THE POTENTIAL FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY SOLUTIONS

 

A Green Bus in Oman runs on biodiesel made from date kernels paving the way for a sustainable future for the Middle East Region

“In the Arab worlds, specifically in Oman, we have a lot of waste generated from dates because we’re huge consumers of dates. At one time, the date seeds were used for coffee, as coffee beans. And we thought, can we utilize the oil content in the seeds to convert that into biodiesel, because it has about 9 to 15 per cent of oil in the seeds.”

-- Dr.  Lamya Al Haj, Associate Professor of molecular biology Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University

 

Interview with Dr. Lamya Al Haj, Associate Professor, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University

 

By Suzanne Forcese

 

WT: Lamya, you have a very impressive bio on several accounts.  First, give our viewers a glimpse into your academic background.

Al Haj:  My PhD is Structural and Molecular Biology from UCL (London) and MSc in Environmental Science and Technology from UNSW (Australia). I am a researcher in biodiesel alternatives to oil.

 

WT: Tell us about your area of research and why this is important to you.

Al Haj: We are focused mainly on biofuel production as a clean alternative energy resource for a cleaner world.

Our project specifically looks at palm tree waste in the production of second-generation biofuels as a clean, sustainable and commercial energy resource for the Sultanate of Oman and other oil producing countries.

This work is so dear to my heart for many reasons, mainly as I come from a region that heavily depends on petroleum as the main source of energy and income and being committed to play my role in achieving the 7th Sustainable Development Goal  – Affordable and Clean Energy,  I wanted to do something for my country to help reduce our dependency on a limited energy resource.

Beyond the environmental benefits of reducing waste and carbon emissions, the project carries wide-ranging social and economic implications.  By creating a demand for date kernels as a raw material for biodiesel production the project has the potential to generate new sources of income for farmers and create job opportunities for farmers.

WT: Lamya I would also like our viewers to appreciate a commitment that speaks to your passion in disruptive education. As the founder of “Coach4Change” you work alongside and support senior government officials, CEOs, business leaders and boards around the country and have created a platform to inspire young researchers in leadership.

Al Haj: I am keen on training the next generation of scientists from our Omani and Arab youth and educate them on the importance of R&D, global citizenship and commitment to a cleaner world through my training and educational platforms.

WT: In your research and outreach, you have spearheaded a project that transforms waste date seeds into biofuel. Please tell us about the project.

Al Haj: Oman, like other oil producing countries, needs to identify and exploit all available resources in the context of national sustainable development. The oil producing countries are heavily dependent on the oil and gas sectors for most of their export revenues and government spending.

The finite nature of fossil fuels, the high demand for energy and the environmentally damaging properties of fossil fuels are pushing research towards viable alternatives.

Biofuels, such as biodiesel, ethanol, butanol, and biogas, are the cleanest liquid fuel alternatives to diesel and gasoline. However, the major global challenges in biofuel production are finding suitable renewable feedstock, optimizing the production process and the cost of scaling up for large-scale production.

Current industrial-scale production of biofuels still faces the problem of high production cost and low yields.

In our novel work, we developed an economical and competitive process for biofuel production using agricultural wastes in Oman, typically palm tree waste.

These wastes accumulate in large amounts (around 62,000 metric tons of residues). By using them, we not only produced biofuels but also eliminated waste materials that would otherwise pose an environmental and economic burden of disposal.

WT: What was the inspiration behind your research? Why dates?

Al Haj: The idea originated back in 2015 with a team of academics and researchers who looked at the waste material that is unique to our country and region. Oman, like many Arab countries, is a huge consumer of dates (around 388K tons of dates annually making it the 8th largest producers of dates globally).

Date seeds are 9-15% oil. The idea was to try to utilize this oil and convert it into biodiesel as a clean sustainable solution to be blended with conventional diesel to alleviate the stress of our limited petroleum resources.

WT: There was a paradigm shift that had to take place for your idea to gel with investors. Can you tell us about that and how/why now thinking has changed.

Al Haj: It was all about “alignment” in goals. At the beginning our research appeared competitive in the oil and gas sectors. With more awareness and global attention on moving towards green energy we became partners for achieving the same goals of “Net Zero by 2050”. With time, a lot of convincing and patience and the countries’ commitment to clean energy alternatives, it went from a competition to a collaboration!

WT: Briefly and simply describe the process of extracting oil from dates please.

Al Haj: The date kernels are washed, dried, and crushed. The oil is extracted using alcohol before a recyclable chemical catalyst converts it into biodiesel.

WT: The date powered bus first hit the road in 2022. What did this accomplishment mean for you personally?

Al Haj:  We were faced with many challenges along the way including logistic support, lab space limitations, Covid delays, lack of awareness of the significance of the project and limited resources.

Having taken our work from the Lab to the roads after 7 years of hard work meant that real-life solutions can be driven from proper Research and Development process that can be done in house despite the challenges.

WT: What are you still hoping to achieve with your biofuel research?

Al Haj: Our main goal is commercialization.

Our findings provided technical and economical solutions on how to convert waste materials into biofuels. Our work also provided a solid bioprocess platform for the industry and for investors to test their feedstock.

Increasing the final yield of biofuel at the maximum rate would improve, to a great extent, the process economy.

The production cost is expected to be reduced by producing added-value products such as glycerol and biofertilizers which are both typical by-products of the biofuel production process that can enhance revenue through sales.

Also, the residue (lignin) from the hydrolysis process will be activated physically and chemically to produce activated carbon that will be characterized in terms of the physical/chemical properties (pore size, surface area, functional groups, etc.) to study its ability to remove hazardous and toxic material from gaseous and aqueous streams. This will aid in adding an environmentally competitive advantage of our biofuel over conventional fuels.

We are now reaching our final results that will demonstrate a conceptual design of biofuel production based on a bio-refinery concept.

WT: You have received recognition for your outreach in working with young researchers and getting a message out to the world. What is that message?

Al Haj: It’s so heartwarming to see how far our research has reached today. I am so proud of our research team that worked tirelessly all these years to make it happen and my message to them and all youth out there is that you definitely have what it takes to succeed. The secret is to hold onto what you are passionate about.

WT: What is the bigger picture impact of your research and the date fueled bus?

Al Haj: Coming from the Arab region where very little funds are allocated for R&D, I aspired to be a role model for the younger generations to strive to follow their ambitions and adopt R&D in understanding that it is a powerful tool to drive change and create impact despite the limited resources available. I also aimed at sending a message that we need to pay more attention to solution-based research and allocate more funds, develop policies, mandates, and engage the private sector to support the development of green technologies in the region. My main aim is to inspire and empower our youth!

WT: Moving forward with your vision, what still needs to happen in the push toward renewable energy?

Al Haj: We need more serious investments, clear policies with regards to carbon credits, policies that support the transmission from conventional fuel to renewables and commitment from both government and privet sectors. We also need more collaborations in terms of R&D to allow for the quick developments of new technologies and knowledge exchange.

WT: You are known to be one of the leading women in the STEM ecosystem in the Arab world. At WaterToday we would also like to congratulate you on your many awards and recognitions in Environmental Science, Gulf Intelligence, and perhaps most notably to name a few -- “Omani Woman Award 2019” for your innovation, and the prestigious “L’Oréal UNESCO Award for Women in Science- Middle East Fellowship Award”- and being featured in the book "100 most successful Omani women" and more recently classified as top 20 most inspiring persons in Oman.

Al Haj: I want to thank WaterToday for the opportunity to share our work with a much wider community.

 









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