DUBAI: The worlds of business and academia are too often viewed as mutually exclusive. But as nations search for scalable solutions to the climate crisis, while also attempting 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 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which has already carried out new research into the scaled use of solar power in sustainable desalination of seawater.
Last month, a joint delegation of the two organizations hosted the inaugural Innovation Days event, a platform that brought together leading business executives, innovators and researchers to showcase their expertise in solar energy, green hydrogen, artificial intelligence, and desalination.
The event looked at the critical issues facing green sources of energy and the desalination process, including how to accelerate the adoption of sustainable technologies to advance the integration of renewables and hydrogen in the process.
“We entered into the local innovation system and we started this journey into innovation by identifying a top-notch university in the region,” Thomas Altmann, the executive vice president of innovation and new technology at ACWA Power, told Arab News.
The company, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and has its headquarters 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 Kingdom’s foremost education and research institutions.
Since 2019, the two organizations have jointly operated a research and development hub 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 to new areas. The original idea was to improve the operational efficiency of our plants.”
Already, he added, the company has been able to make incremental improvements to its operations and designs as a result of the partnership.
“We have made significant design improvements,” said Altmann. “This academic support drills into some topics a lot deeper, to do lab and pilot tests.”
Partnerships such as this represent an exciting convergence of academia and industry, according to regional experts. Abhayjit Sinha, a strategic advisor at the Middle East Solar Industry Association, said such arrangements are mutually beneficial.
“On one hand, KAUST researchers receive a real-world test bed to test their hypotheses,” he told Arab News. “On the other hand, ACWA Power benefits from an extended and external research and development facility.
“A critical success factor is balancing the bold, albeit sometimes theoretical, ideas of academicians with economical value sought by industry players.”
Raed Bkayrat, another strategic adviser at MESIA, believes the partnership will have the added benefit of accelerating research into more sustainable desalination, a process that can be extremely energy intensive.
“Worldwide, seawater desalination is producing an ever-growing carbon footprint and is having 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 that can produce desalinated water with a minimal carbon footprint.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the larger 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 advanced research institutions such as KAUST with major players in the desalination industry could prove key to ensuring the Kingdom meets its net-zero emissions goal by 2060.
“The model of engaging industrial players with research institutions and creating a strong dialogue that helps shape and guide the research work done by the scientists at KAUST is the proper model,” he said.
“It enables industry adoption of new technology and helps bridge the gap between the laboratory and real-world implementation.
“Such models are gaining wider adoption and are helping research universities to make a greater impact and secure additional funding streams while providing a technological and commercial edge to the industry partner.”
Saudi Arabia is transitioning toward renewables in an attempt to reduce its reliance on oil and gas for domestic energy needs. Authorities aim to expand the country’s total solar energy capacity by almost 40 gigawatts by 2025 from the current 455 megawatts.
To achieve this, the government is investing heavily in its research universities and promoting the opportunities for both international investment and domestic entrepreneurism to help stimulate the market for green investments and sustainable solutions.
Business leaders think even more can be done to promote such an environment. Altmann, for example, believes the Kingdom ought to build a platform that allows companies such as ACWA Power to bring new technologies to Saudi Arabia and initially deploy them on a small scale.
“We have proposed something, with any new project, to allow the developer to deploy a new technology up to 1 percent of the total capacity,” he said. “This will allow us to bring in new technology, to scale it, develop it further and make it more mature.
“That would mean a growing independence from the grid, immediately reducing fossil fuel burning in Saudi Arabia by using emerging technologies, many of which are coupled directly with renewable energy.”
Innovation Days, like the one in March, could prove critical to establishing just such an innovative environment in the Kingdom by promoting the bonds between business and leading scientific minds.
“It’s mainly universities, entrepreneurs, corporates like us, and government,” Altmann said.
“We did a lot of innovation in-house and now we opened up about being a technology innovation leader as well.”
One of these innovations is hydrogen power, which is regarded by many experts as the clean energy of the future. Green hydrogen, which is produced using solar energy, is a major feature of the energy equation for the NEOM megacity project currently taking shape along Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Red Sea coast.
“We started to expand our cooperation with KAUST in the area of hydrogen electrolysis (which significantly reduces energy consumption), and we are a part of the NEOM project as a shareholder, (with) the largest hydrogen plant in the world under construction,” said Altmann.
“So we have taken a huge step in that direction and now we are doing pilot plants in 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, arms, defense, information security, and technology corporation, and Elm, a joint-stock company and leading digital-solutions company in Saudi Arabia that is owned by the nation’s Public Investment Fund.
“One benchmark for success is the number of patents filed under such collaborations,” said Sinha. “I expect more partnership announcements in the near future. However, in the long term there will be consolidation where most industry firms 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 across energy, water, the environment, food and health, and the digital realm through such research partnerships with industry players.
“We work closely with partners in the Kingdom, including the ministries, NEOM and leading companies,” he told Arab News.
“The Innovation Days event with ACWA Power offers an exciting forum to support the development of technologies that can help solve local and global needs.”