Tag Archives: arabia

Sustaining Saudi Arabia’s reefs for the future

By Meres J. Weche


“About 150 kilometers of Jeddah’s coastline has become useless for sea creatures. If the level of pollution is not controlled or treated then the Kingdom will soon have to import fish and shrimps to meet its demands,” warned Dr. Ahmad Ashour from the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment Protection (PMEP), when speaking to local Saudi media in the past year.

Marine ecological environments, where all kinds of sea creatures, corals, fish and algae evolve, require healthy interactions between the natural habitat and influences from human environments in order to thrive. “What we’ve learned over the past few years is that the reef systems around the Saudi coast are not immune to the global stressors that are affecting reefs all over the planet,” said Dr. Michael Berumen, Associate Professor ofMarine Science at KAUST.

As highlighted in a recent KAUST article focusing on surveying work from the Director of the Red Sea Research Center, Prof. Xabier Igigoien, a major human-induced stressor is pollution – mainly from plastics making their way into the oceans of the world. Another factor are the globally increasing temperatures and the resulting problems from decreasing ocean pH and ocean acidification. So in addition to global problems affecting the coral reef systems, there are also locally specific challenges to be tackled.

For his part, Prof. Michael Berumen believes that another major locally influenced factor that needs to be observed in overfishing. “There’s too many fish in the fish markets and not enough fish in the reefs,” as he deplores. “There’s an imbalance that requires a closer look at promoting sustainable fishing practices.”

Where Have All the Big Fish Gone?

Saudi Arabia is fortunate to have enormous systems of reefs, a large reef habitat and a huge coastline with healthy reefs. Moreover, the relatively low population level along the Red Sea coast, apart from a few large urban areas would, generally speaking, minimize negative human impacts on the marine ecology. Also, the fact that there are no big river systems flowing into the Red Sea makes this maritime environment very unique.

The latter point is significant because in most places in the world, where lands are transformed by farming, intensive agricultural practices introduce all kinds of chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers — which change the composition of the land. When there’s a big rainstorm, or wet season, all this altered soil gets dumped into the sea. This is not a problem that exists in Saudi Arabia.

This is why when Prof. Michael Berumen and a team of reef experts from Australia and the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution first started diving in the Red Sea along the Saudi coast about seven years ago, they were surprised with what they observed. As Berumen recalls:

“On our very first trip we were on a boat that went from Yanbu to Jeddah, so including the reefs here in Thuwal. We cruised southwards and every few kilometers we were stopping and surveying a reef. It really was within about 3 or 4 dives that we all started saying that something was missing here. The reefs looked great but we were missing those top predators. They were just not there. ‘Where are they?’ we asked. Where are all the sharks that we should be seeing?”

Through KAUST’s partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a team began a project to look into fishing pressures. They sought to understand why it was that directly across the Red Sea, on the Sudanese coast, other expeditions observed the presence of far more big fish.

“There are sharks on almost all the dives in the Sudan; there are big groupers, big jacks, and big snappers. There are all these big top predator fish which we notably don’t have here. It’s indeed very rare to see sharks and big groupers or big snappers on the Saudi reefs,” as Prof. Berumen explained.

What the Woods Hole surveying team found, partially using data from the fisheries department within the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture, was that “most species of fish have more or less collapsed as a fishery even as many as two or three decades ago.”

Prof. Berumen estimates that there are between 8,000-10,000 fishing boats, which practice what he characterizes as “artisanal industrial fishing,” operating along the Saudi coast.

While this doesn’t involve big industrial fishing fleets as one would normally think of when considering commercial fishing, the sheer numbers of these fishermen collectively exert as much pressure on the fisheries as industrial fishing. They’re basically using hand lines, single lines, some nets and maybe some traps; but the constant fishing has a severe impact.

“I don’t think there are any reefs in this region — even on the furthest offshore reefs that we’ve gone to here — where we didn’t regularly see fishing boats. So I think fishing pressure all through here is fairly homogenous,” said Berumen.

The Role of Education for Conservation Efforts

In addition to overfishing, the other major stressor to the Red Sea coastal reefs and marine ecology is again caused by widespread pollution. “When you drive to Thuwal from Jeddah, what do you see? A forest of plastic bags; and so much of that plastic ends up in the sea,” said Prof. Berumen. The problem isn’t just limited to the vicinities of large urban agglomerations. In fact, plastic remnants can be found across the Saudi coast. “Plastic is going to be a major challenge for us for decades and decades to come,” he adds.

Even in remote areas such as between the Farasan Islands and Al-Lith, which Michael Berumen calls “Saudi Arabia’s Great Barrier Reef” and where there are hundreds of really nice reefs, the problem can be observed. “It’s far away from big cities but it doesn’t matter. The islands in that region have got lots of trash and plastics,” explains Berumen. “The little fish that are migrating up and down are probably eating a lot of that plastic.”

The presence of KAUST and its Red Sea Research Center over the past few years has been instrumental in conducting important surveying and research work to tackle those twin problems of pollution and overfishing that are having a devastating effect on the Red Sea’s marine ecology environment.

But Prof. Berumen is quick to point out that it’s out of KAUST’s scope, or mission, to advocate for the enforcement of fishing regulations. The valuable research and surveying work being done on the Red Sea’s marine life by KAUST marine scientists can nonetheless serve as a valuable benchmark in the event that relevant authorities sought to institute such regulations. Examples would be restrictions on maximum or minimum fish size, daily catch amount limits, seasonal closures, and restricted fishing locations. So KAUST is already well positioned to consult government bodies on devising conservation strategies.

“What we should be, and are, doing is to collect the data. When and if we’re ever asked for it we are ready to provide scientifically sound reasoning for specific policies or changes in practices. We won’t need to ask the regulators to come back in five years for results,” as Berumen explained.

What KAUST is actively committed to doing however is to educate the public about the importance of marine ecology conservation. Outlining this goal, Prof. Berumen says:

“One of the things that I think we as a center and a university have to try to address is that education gap. There’s an old conservation saying that if you don’t know what you’ve got, it’s impossible to care about it. If you don’t even know it’s there it’s really hard to be concerned about it.”

One good example of a very positive sign which Prof. Berumen points to in the last couple of years has been the successful opening of the Fakieh Aquarium along Jeddah’s Corniche. A first of its kind in the Kingdom, the aquarium “promotes the conservation of the environment by spreading awareness through education and entertainment.”

The aquarium welcomes thousands of visitors per week. “That’s great because I know it’s happening,” said Berumen. “I’ve been there and I’ve watched the people come in and say: ‘Really? We have this literally a hundred meters away? If I jumped out into the water off the Corniche I would see these things?”

Prof. Berumen believes that this is the exposure that has been missing. “People were not exposed to what they had in their own backyard,” he said. He observes the same reaction when taking local Jeddah residents snorkeling for the first time. “So I’m optimistic that there are steps in the right direction and eventually there’ll be a sea change, as it were, in the public attitude toward conservation.”

Source: KAUST News

The NOMADD technology represents KAUST's first royalty-bearing license agreement. Credit: KAUST News

Innovation in the desert! KAUST’s NOMADD sets sights on solar energy future

The NOMADD technology represents KAUST’s first royalty-bearing license agreement.

By Meres J. Weche

The United Nations estimates the Saudi population will grow to 45 million by 2050; and as the population increases, domestic energy demand is anticipated to double by 2030. In recognition of the growing importance of developing sustainable and renewable energy sources for the Kingdom, the Saudi government has established the ambitious goal of generating a third of the country’s electricity sources (41,000 megawatts) through solar power by 2032. Towards this goal, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) aims to construct a $109 billion solar industry in Saudi Arabia, which would represent about 20,000 football fields worth of solar panels.

“We hope to be the industry standard solution to clean all those panels,” said Georg Eitelhuber, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of NOMADD. The startup company, developed three years ago at KAUST and originally supported and funded by theEntrepreneurship Center and the Seed Fund program, offers a waterless and remotely operated system to clean solar panels. The acronym NOMADD stands for NO-water Mechanical Automated Dusting Device.

The NOMADD technology represents KAUST's first royalty-bearing license agreement. Credit: KAUST News
The NOMADD technology represents KAUST’s first royalty-bearing license agreement. Credit: KAUST News

Describing the challenges facing Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning solar energy industry, the NOMADD founder says: “The big challenge, is dust. Desert winds pick up the dust and push it onto the solar panels, all day every day. Sometimes you can have dust storms which put so much dust on the solar panel surface, you can lose 60% of your output in a single day.” Actually, solar panels lose between 0.4-0.8% of their efficiency per day just from desert sand and dust.

A mechanical engineer by training, Eitelhuber was working as a physics teacher at the KAUST School when he started experimenting with Lego blocks and paper to find a solution to clean solar panels exposed to the rough dusty environment of Saudi Arabia. His innovation has since been recognized with the 2014 Solar Pioneer Award and he has been working on further testing and developing the solution with world-leading companies in solar energy such as First Solar Inc. and SunPower Corp.

Eitelhuber is grateful for the backing of KAUST, with all of its resources, in assisting inventors like himself. As the NOMADD team works with various industrial testing partners on improving the technology, KAUST Tech Transfer is there to maintain control of patentable technology which may emerge in the process. A milestone was achieved last month when KAUST signed its first royalty-bearing license agreement for the NOMADD desert solar solution system.

A Continuous Drive for Improvement

Demonstrating the newly devised fifth version of the NOMADD system in its three years of development, Georg Eitelhuber explains that it’s now “70% lighter than previous versions and uses less than half of the power.” In addition to that, it’s much cheaper to manufacture.

“Every time we do a new version it’s simpler, cheaper and faster,” he adds. For example, the rail system supporting the brushes cleaning the solar panels from top to bottom is not only lighter and cheaper but it also now just clips on – whereas previous versions required many nuts and bolts. The mounting system moreover features an inbuilt self-adjustment process tailored to determine the optimal gravity-adjusted angle as the solar panels are cleaned.

It’s important for the cleaning system to be both economically and functionally optimized since some panel rows can be 400 meters long. “That’s a lot of rail,” said Eitelhuber.” “The old version had literally hundreds of nuts and bolts, little fasteners and washers and it worked great but it also weighted as much as a tank.”

Compared to some earlier models, which had around 120-odd manufacturing pieces, the latest NOMADD system has narrowed it down to 10 to 15 pieces. This means that it’s now easier to manufacture and assemble. “The key thing is that it has to be cheaper than sending out a worker with a squeegee and more economical than anything else in the market,” he adds.

The achieved objective has been to make NOMADD desert-proof – as the arid environment causes things to break down at higher frequencies. The device is basically machined aluminum and stainless steel.

It’s also noteworthy that the brushes used to non-abrasively clean the solar panels can easily be slid out and replaced. So it would take someone around five minutes to change all the brushes.

In addition, one of the major advantages of the NOMADD system is that it’s remotely operated. The cleaning functions can be monitored and operated online from around the world.

A Saudi-Specific Innovation with a Global Footprint

“The advantage that we’ve got is that we’ve basically been three years in development and we’ve been developing this solution for the desert while being in the desert. We’ve got a real understanding of the issues involved in cleaning solar panels in the desert,” said Georg Eitelhuber.

Unlike some other solar panel cleaning solutions from North American and European companies, designed for mild climates, that use water and require manual labor, the NOMADD system really has an edge by being a waterless model ideally suited for these arid conditions. “We understand that having someone standing outside at 45 degrees Celsius cleaning solar panels eight hours a day isn’t feasible,” he adds.

As they keep an eye out for the competition, the NOMADD team is confident that, once they make it through the final development process, they will have every chance of being a huge commercial success.

KAUST’s director of New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, Gordon McConnell, says NOMADD’s local presence in the Kingdom will help contribute in building a knowledge-based economy in Saudi Arabia. “The local incorporation is not just of bureaucratic significance, but will now enable NOMADD to develop its business which in turn will help to create high level jobs in sales, marketing and technical areas, while also offering an opportunity to build up local manufacturing capacity and it will make it easier for fund raising within the Kingdom,” said McConnell.

The NOMADD project has greatly benefited from the collaborative efforts of several key team members such as Guodong Li, Chief Electrical Engineer, and Elizabeth Cassell, the project’s chief Administrator, both from the KAUST Solar Center; as well as Head Mechanical Design Engineer Steven Schneider who has been instrumental in producing technical drawings for manufacturing. Andres Pablo, a Ph.D. student, and Razeen Stoffberg, one of Georg’s ex students front he KAUST school, have been assisting with technical setups and product testing and evaluation.

Also, as much of the manufacturing work is done in Asia, the NOMADD team has set up an office in Singapore, headed by Chief Development Officer Cliff Barrett. As a next step, the team has been actively recruiting a new CEO to help the project achieve critical mass and reach their ambitious future milestones.

“Thanks to some great mentorship from the KAUST New Ventures and Entrepreneurshipteam, I’ve done my best as a CEO but I’m an engineer and an inventor by nature,” said Georg Eitelhuber. “It’s been one of my dreams from the very beginning to try and start something which will have a net positive environmental and social impact.”

Source: KAUST News