With water sustainability at the forefront of Qatar’s priorities, Dr. Sami G. Al-Ghamdi, assistant professor within Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s (HBKU) College of Science and Engineering’s (CSE) Sustainable Development Division, and his research group are analyzing urban water supply technologies, environmental impacts of the built environment’s hydrologic cycles, and potential mitigation strategies like renewable energy for Qatar. As part of this research group, Mohamed Alhaj (PhD candidate) and Mehzabeen Mannan (master’s student) are both pursuing two streams of research related to the environmental impact of Qatar’s water desalination. Upon the completion of their projects later this year, their findings will serve as a baseline to policy-makers and water resources management organizations for an efficient water system that will help the built environment of Qatar.
Due to the peninsula’s geographic location and desert climate, which renders it without direct access to freshwater or harvestable river systems, Qatar today primarily relies on conventional thermal desalination technologies that use natural gas. This, however, presents a concern as thermal desalination technologies are quite energy-intensive and ultimately create a significant environmental impact. Mannan explained, “Similar to the other GCC countries, Qatar is producing huge quantities of desalinated water annually. However, the environmental impact of the desalination process is still poorly understood in this region. Hence, we focused on developing the life-cycle based framework to assess the impact comprehensively.”
The desalinated water is ultimately consumed by the country’s growing population as well as its burgeoning local agriculture and food production sector. Speaking on his quest to find alternative solutions, Alhaj explained, “With saltwater as a readily-available resource, we aimed to identify an environmentally-friendly, a technically-sound, and an economically feasible alternative to current desalination technologies.”
In the early stages of the project, Mehzabeen examined the environmental impact of water from thermal desalination in the life-cycle of the built environment. As a part of her work, she investigated the carbon dioxide emission for producing water from different plant configurations for the State of Qatar. The carbon dioxide emissions were found to be up to 12.6 kg per m3. Following on this, Alhaj’s study – entitled “Policy Recommendations for Sustainable Water Resources Management in Qatar” – produced a comprehensive assessment of available water resources, consumption levels in Qatar as compared to the rest of the world. This investigative yet scholarly contribution was honored with the Qatar Sustainability Award 2017 in the Green Research Category.
Today, the team is working on robust computer modelling using real solar radiation data. Alhaj elaborated, “We are now using specialized computer simulations to test the feasibility of solar power as a potential long-term solution. The computer model we developed, using the Engineering Equation Solver (EES), uses more than 500 equations to describe the solar desalination plant’s performance under variable conditions.”
The uniqueness of this study is in its comprehensive approach by investigating the technical, environmental, and economic aspects of solar-driven desalination. “Here, we proposed using a solar technology called the solar linear Fresnel collector, which is a set of reflective mirrors that focus incident solar energy. This focused energy is used to produce steam that powers the thermal desalination plant which uses the multi-effect distillation process. Desalination plants may be able to emulate this innovative reliance on a renewable and economically-friendly energy source. As such, this technology could greatly impact the future of sustainable water resources management in Qatar in particular, and the region in general,” he concluded.
Mannan’s work also builds on this by investigating the potential reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by integrating solar thermal plants with thermal desalination.
Describing the cycle of this project, which was fully funded by HBKU and technically supported by its Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), Dr. Al-Ghamdi said, “We have seen our research evolve from a group study into a phase of digital experimentation, where our model is being tested across a variety of simulated scenarios and conditions. Every day, our belief strengthens that solar energy, in addition to generating power, is key to helping Qatar acquire water security as well. Ultimately, it is owing to our deeply rooted commitment to Qatar’s environment that we are using advanced life-cycle environmental assessment tools to explore an important angle that is often neglected in purely technical research.”
Notably, Dr. Al-Ghamdi’s research group comprises a total of 17 members including post-doctoral fellows, PhD candidates, and master’s students, who are all focusing on a range of issues integrally related to the sustainability of the built environment.
In line with Qatar National Vision 2030 and Qatar National Research Strategy, scientists and researchers are consistently working on addressing Qatar’s national priorities regarding energy, water and the environment. HBKU is home to state-of-the-art facilities that enable students and scientists to study solar technologies in real-world conditions and with real-time data. This is crucial as it helps researchers develop and deploy solar devices that are ideally suited for Qatar's environment and industry.
Particularly in the light of a growing global understanding on the importance of shared responsibility towards the care and preservation of natural resources, the national quest for the fulfilment of its Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 is echoed within a wider global framework of water-related challenges. Ongoing sustainability research efforts, such as Sustainable Built Environment research group’s, ensure that Qatar emerges as an example of a state that endeavors to strike a progressive balance in its aspirations to meet its economic goals while shouldering its environmental responsibilities through continued advances towards effective resource management.