Desalination project signifies potential for business-university partnerships in Saudi Arabia

DUBAI: The worlds of business and academia are too often seen as mutually exclusive. But as nations seek scalable solutions to the climate crisis, while trying to meet the demands of ever-growing populations, there is certainly merit in working to combine the efforts of these two forces.

Take the recent partnership between ACWA Power and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, which has already conducted new research on the large-scale use of solar energy in sustainable water desalination. of sea.

Last month, a joint delegation from the two organizations hosted the inaugural Innovation Days event, a platform that brought together leading business leaders, innovators and researchers to showcase their expertise in solar energy fields. , green hydrogen, artificial intelligence and desalination.

The event examined critical issues facing green energy sources and the desalination process, including how to accelerate the adoption of sustainable technologies to advance the integration of renewables and hydrogen into the process .

“We entered the local innovation system and started this innovation journey by identifying a top-notch university in the region,” said Thomas Altmann, executive vice president of innovation and new technologies. at ACWA Power, at Arab News.

The company, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and headquartered in Riyadh, is a leading developer, investor and operator in power generation, desalination and green hydrogen in the MENA region. . KAUST is one of the leading educational and research institutions in the Kingdom.

Since 2019, the two organizations have jointly operated a research and development center called the KAUST-ACWA Power Center of Excellence for Desalination and Solar Power.

“KAUST had several advantages for us,” said Altmann. “(Our initial work) is a collaboration in desalination and solar, and we have already expanded into new areas. The initial idea was to improve the operational efficiency of our factories.

Already, he added, the company has been able to make incremental improvements to its operations and designs through this partnership.

“We’ve made significant improvements to the design,” Altmann said. “This academic support delves into certain topics, to do lab and pilot testing.”

According to regional experts, partnerships like this represent an exciting convergence of academia and industry. Abhayjit Sinha, strategic adviser at the Middle East Solar Industry Association, said such arrangements are mutually beneficial.

Signing of KAUST Memorandum of Understanding with ACWA Power. (Provided)

“On the one hand, KAUST researchers are given a real-world testbed to test their hypotheses,” he told Arab News. “On the other hand, ACWA Power benefits from an extensive and external research and development center.

“A critical success factor is balancing the bold, albeit sometimes theoretical, ideas of academics with the economic value sought by industry players.”

Raed Bkayrat, another MESIA strategic adviser, believes the partnership will have the added benefit of accelerating research into more sustainable desalination, a process that can be hugely energy-intensive.

“Worldwide, seawater desalination produces an ever-increasing carbon footprint and has a wider ecological impact, if left to current commercial solutions,” he told Arab News.

“Such a partnership will help provide mitigation methods as well as new solutions capable of producing desalinated water with a minimal carbon footprint.”


* The partnership between KAUST and ACWA Power is driving the adoption of solar energy for water desalination.

* Business leaders are eager to tap Saudi Arabia’s top research universities to find carbon reduction solutions.

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest desalination markets in the Middle East and North Africa region. About 2,000 million cubic meters of water are desalinated each year to meet the freshwater needs of the Kingdom’s population and agricultural sector.

Bkayrat believes that combining the efforts of cutting-edge research institutions such as KAUST with major players in the desalination industry could prove key in ensuring the Kingdom achieves its goal of net zero emissions by 2060.

“The model of involving industry players in research institutes and creating a strong dialogue that helps shape and guide the research work done by KAUST scientists is the right model,” he said.

“It enables industry adoption of new technologies and helps bridge the gap between lab and real-world implementation.

The recent partnership between ACWA Power and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia (pictured) has already conducted new research into the large-scale use of solar energy in sustainable water desalination of sea. (Provided)

“These models are gaining adoption and are helping research universities achieve greater impact and secure additional funding streams while providing technological and commercial advantage to the industrial partner.”

Saudi Arabia is transitioning to renewable energy in a bid to reduce its dependence on oil and gas for its domestic energy needs. Authorities aim to increase the country’s total solar power capacity by nearly 40 gigawatts by 2025 from the current 455 megawatts.

To achieve this, the government is investing heavily in its research universities and promoting international investment and domestic entrepreneurship opportunities to help drive the market for green investments and sustainable solutions.

Business leaders believe that even more can be done to promote such an environment. Altmann, for example, thinks the Kingdom should build a platform for companies like ACWA Power to bring new technologies to Saudi Arabia and deploy them initially on a small scale.

“We offered something, with any new project, to allow the developer to deploy new technology up to 1% of total capacity,” he said. “It will allow us to introduce new technologies, scale them, develop them further and make them more mature.

“This would mean increasing independence from the grid, immediately reducing fossil fuel consumption in Saudi Arabia using emerging technologies, many of which are directly coupled with renewables.”

Innovation days, like the one in March, could prove key in establishing such an innovative environment in the Kingdom by fostering connections between business and cutting-edge scientific minds.

“It’s mostly universities, entrepreneurs, businesses like us, and government,” Altmann said.

“We have done a lot of innovation internally and now we have also opened up to be a leader in technological innovation.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest desalination markets in the Middle East and North Africa region, approximately 2 billion cubic meters of water are desalinated each year to meet the freshwater needs of the population and the agricultural sector of the Kingdom. (AFP)

One of these innovations is hydrogen, considered by many experts to be the clean energy of the future. Green hydrogen, which is produced from solar energy, is a major feature of the energy equation of the NEOM megacity project currently taking shape along the northwest Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.

“We have started to expand our cooperation with KAUST in the field of hydrogen electrolysis (which significantly reduces energy consumption), and we participate in the NEOM project as a shareholder, (with) the largest hydrogen plant in the world under construction,” says Altmann.

“So we have taken a big step in this direction and are now building pilot plants at KAUST with the next generation of hydrogen electrolysis.”

According to Sinha, corporate partnerships are an integral part of KAUST’s business plan, with similar agreements already in place with Lockheed Martin, the US aerospace, weapons, defense, information security company. and technology, and Elm, a joint stock company and leading digital solutions company in Saudi Arabia that is owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund.

“A criterion of success is the number of patents filed in such collaborations,” Sinha said. “I expect more partnership announcements in the near future. However, in the long term, there will be consolidation where most companies in the sector will partner with one or two academic institutes.

Donal Bradley, vice president for research at KAUST, said the university aims to address critical global challenges in energy, water, environment, food and climate. health, and the digital domain thanks to such research partnerships with industry players.

“We are working closely with partners in the Kingdom, including ministries, NEOM and leading companies,” he told Arab News.

“The Innovation Days event with ACWA Power provides an exciting forum to support the development of technologies that can help solve local and global needs.”

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