With an abundance of sunshine and no shortage of space, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates is in a good position to develop its green credentials.

Its ruler, Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, has already declared that the emirate feels it has a duty towards mankind and to the planet. But while RAK has opened its doors to organisations involved in green initiatives, it has been careful to take a pragmatic approach to research and business in this field. Sheikh Saud recognises that any development needs to be based on hard economic reality. “If you’re producing an alternative, it should be based on its own merits,” he tells fDi.

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With the economy expanding by up to 14% annually and limited oil resources of its own, RAK has a real incentive to explore alternative methods of generating energy. “Green issues are more important than ever for RAK and the whole world,” says Dr Khater Massad, chief executive officer, RAK Investment Authority (RAKIA).

Taking a step towards achieving this goal, the CSEM UAE Innovation Center has been established as a joint venture between the RAK government and CSEM, the Swiss Centre for Microtechnology. It is at the forefront of the emirate’s quest to develop green technologies, seen as essential for establishing itself as a regional hub for manufacturing, trade and commerce. 

“There was a political wish from the government to have a centre like ours here, and the attraction of this region to us [was] its plans to build itself up industrially,” says Dr Hamid Kayal, chief executive officer, CSEM UAE. “Although it’s only a small emirate, for us it has a very big advantage, that if we propose something – however crazy it may sound – we will get a rapid decision from the authorities about whether or not we can try it.”

In 2010 the organisation, which carries out research and development (R&D), as well as nurturing start-ups – had seven projects involving five students and 17 employees. It focuses on the technology transfer of applied research in renewable energy, clean technologies, energy efficiency and water desalination.

The centre’s facilities include 87,000 square metres of land dedicated to solar and clean technology R&D, including a solar cool centre, sea water tank, solar island CSP R&D Centre, solar thermal test and photovoltaic panels performance testing.

For Mr Kayal, green energy analysis is based on pure economics. “RAK doesn’t have the reserves of fossil fuels of Abu Dhabi, so our programme is to focus on clean and solar energy. There’s a lot of research into solar energy because in this area of the world you find some of the harshest conditions in which to develop solar applications. It’s either humid or dry, depending on the season. It’s very dusty. It’s very sunny, but it has very high temperatures, which are not ideal for photovoltaic [technology], as this requires sunny and cool conditions," he explains. 

"In fact, with sunny and hot conditions, you sometimes need to invest 20% to 30% extra for the same payback. Furthermore, you have to deal with the dust, which is a problem as solar direct energy needs clean conditions in order to work. But if you can develop a solution here and show it works, you can be confident it will work everywhere else in the world where you have the right sun, such as north Africa, the US, southern China, India, Australia and so on.”

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is another research institution active in RAK. It established EPFL Middle East under the patronage of Sheikh Saud in 2009 and now has nine permanent resident employees and more than 50 EPFL researchers and scientists involved in various research projects developed in and for RAK and the UAE. Franco Vigliotti, dean of EPFL Middle East, says one of the main reasons it chose RAK was its location.

He explains: “From a scientific perspective, RAK and the UAE is an ideal location for researching the most important global challenges of this century: renewable energy, water and energy security, creating sustainable urban environments and developing clean technologies.”

Saving energy

In addition to supporting research into alternative energy, RAK has created a green building code. Implemented four years ago, this sets out energy conservation construction methods for new builds. Through the R&D community that has set up shop in the emirate, it is also pioneering ways of dealing with wasted energy.

“All existing industries in the cement, glass, ceramics, aluminium and petrochemical sectors are based on fossil fuels – and these industries send a huge amount of wasted heat – as well as heavy carbon emission – into the air,” says Mr Kayal. “You need to be able to harness this and take advantage of it. So one of our projects is looking at how you can use waste heat to reduce your need for electricity generated by fossil fuel, increase your revenue and reduce your CO2 emissions, too.”

There is already a big push to adopt sustainable energies in the UAE through the Masdar initiative, which is a massive renewable energy and sustainable technology initiative being developed in Abu Dhabi. “We are putting a European slant on our work, which we see as being complementary to the big Masdar,” says Mr Kayal. “They are working on solar energy, photovoltaic or thermal solar, for on-grid applications while we focus on off-grid applications, passive energy saving and energy management. They want to catch all waste heat coming from their manufacturing areas while we concentrate on the multi-use of the energy from one heat source.

"What we are doing is integrating the technology that was developed in Europe for waste heat and adapting it to solar. For example, we’re working on polygeneration processes which is the successive generation of applications using the same heat source generated by the energy gathered by a single collector’s field from the sun; instead of wasting the heat in the air after generating electricity, we are using it to produce cooling or air conditioning and to desalinate water. This is a new approach, and it’s come about through us adapting European research to our needs here.”

Solar island

CSEM was the first organisation to start work on a solar island platform to find solutions for green energy. This was launched in 2008 with funding from RAKIA. The circular island is a 5000 sq m open-air laboratory that can adjust its position to match the course of the sun to ensure a maximum yield. The platform moves using electric hydrodynamic motors fixed around its circumference. CSEM attracts universities and industries to the platform, either to develop new concepts or test their existing products and solutions for real.