eBriefing

Environmental Research: Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum 2011

Environmental Research: Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum 2011
Reported by
Erica Gies

Posted February 15, 2012

Presented By

Overview

The Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum convened for the second time from November 20 – 22, 2011, in Doha, to discuss progress and challenges in transforming Qatar from a resource-based to a knowledge-based economy and in creating a more sustainable future. The Foundation recruited eminent scientists and leaders from Qatar and around the world to share their insights on how to build a robust R&D infrastructure, encourage regional and worldwide collaborations, and foster entrepreneurship in Qatar. One day of the forum was devoted to a series of research presentations in five areas: energy, environmental, biomedical, computing, and arts and humanities research.

This eBriefing looks at the research presented in the environment track, which included presentations on soil science, advances in chemical processes and products, CO2 management, and environmental monitoring. A panel of distinguished experts in environmental research challenged the presenters to consider new ways of thinking about their experimental designs and their results.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and additional information from this event.

A report and multimedia presentations from the forum-wide sessions can be found in the Building a Knowledge-based Economy in Qatar eBriefing.

Reports on the individual research tracks can be found at:
Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Islamic Studies eBriefing
Biomedical Research eBriefing
Computing Research eBriefing
Energy Research eBriefing

For speaker abstracts, download the Annual Research Forum Proceedings here.
For speaker biographies, download the Annual Research Forum Program book here.


Presented by

  • Qatar Foundation

Distinguished Research Award Sponsors

  • ExxonMobil
  • Total
  • Shell

Other Sponsors

  • Chevron
  • Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar

Scientific Publication Partner

  • Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Journals

Resources

Soil Science

Braudeau E, Mohtar RH. Modeling the soil system: bridging the gap between pedology and soil-water physics. Global Planet. Change 2009;67(1-2):51-61.

Braudeau E, et al. A multi-scale "soil water structure" model based on the pedostructure concept. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss. 2009;6:1111-1163.

Louge MY, Valance A, Mint Babah H, et al. Seepage-induced penetration of water vapor and dust beneath ripples and dunes. J. Geophys. Res. 2010;115:F02002.

Nield JM. Surface moisture-induced feedback in aeolian environments. Geology 2011;39:915-918.

Wolfe SA, Hugenholtz CH. Barchan dunes stabilized under recent climate warming on the northern Great Plains. Geology 2009;37:1039-1042.

Advances in Chemistry

Abdul-Kader AM, Turos A, Grambole D, et al. Compositional transformations in ion implanted polymers. Nucl. Instrum. Meth. B 2005;240(1-2):152-156.

Ershad-Langroudi A, Jafarzadeh-Dogouri F, Razavi-Nour M, Oromiehie A. Mechanical and thermal properties of polypropylene / recycled polyethylene terephthalate / chopped rice husk composites. J. Appl. Polym. Sci. 2008;110(4):1979-1985.

Love JA, Sanford MS, Day MW, Grubbs RH. Synthesis, structure, and activity of enhanced initiators for olefin metathesis. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2003;125(33):10103-10109.

Pritchard G. Plants move up the reinforcement agenda. Plastics Additives and Compounding 2007;9(4):40-43.

Saneifar M, Fahes M, El Cheikh Ali N, Zoghbi B. An experimental investigation of carbonate rock wettability after stimulation fluids invasion. Conference Paper. SPE EUROPEC/EAGE Annual Conference and Exhibition 23–26, May 2011, Vienna, Austria, Soc. Petrol. Eng. J.

Tang G-Q, Firoozabadi A. Wettability alteration to intermediate gas-wetting in porous media at elevated temperatures. Transport Porous Med. 2003;52(2)185-211.

Tuba R, Corrâa da Costa R, Bazzi HS, Gladysz JA. Phase transfer activation of fluorous analogs of Grubbs' second-generation catalyst: ring-opening metathesis polymerization. ACS Catal. 2012;2(1):155-162.

CO2 Management

Choi S, Drese JH, Jones CW. Adsorbent materials for carbon dioxide capture from large anthropogenic point sources. Chem. Sus. Chem. 2009;2(9):796-854.

Corti CW, Holliday RJ, Thompson DT. Developing new industrial applications for gold: Gold nanotechnology. Gold Bulletin 2002;35(4):111-117.

Dawson R, Stöckel E, Holst JR, Adams DJ, Cooper AI. Microporous organic polymers for carbon dioxide capture. Energy Environ. Sci. 2011;4(10):4239-4245.

Karadas F, Yavuz CT, Zulfiqar S, et al. CO(2) adsorption studies on hydroxy metal carbonates M(CO(3))(x)(OH)(y) (M = Zn, Zn-Mg, Mg, Mg-Cu, Cu, Ni, and Pb) at high pressures up to 175 bar. Langmuir 2011;27(17):10642-10647.

Muftah H. El-Naas (2011). Reject Brine Management, Desalination, Trends and Technologies, Michael Schorr (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-311-8, InTech.

Rodriguez JA. Gold nanoparticles on Titania: activation and behavior. Dekker Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Second Edition (2009).

Environmental Monitoring

Hamade AK, Rabold R, Tankersley CG. Adverse cardiovascular effects with acute particulate matter and ozone exposures: interstrain variation in mice. Environ. Health Persp. 2008;116(8):1033-1039.

Hamade AK, Tankersley CG. Interstrain variation in cardiac and respiratory adaptation to repeated ozone and particulate matter exposures. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 2009;296(4):R1202-1215.

Hook S, Lampi M, Febbo E, Ward J, Parkerton T. Hepatic gene expression in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchusmykiss) exposed to different hydrocarbon mixtures. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2010;29(9):2034-2043.

Kapp T, Kammann U, Vobach M, Vetter W. Synthesis of low and high chlorinated toxaphene and comparison of their toxicity by zebrafish (Daniorerio) embryo test. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2006;25(11):2884-2889.

Redman A, McGrath J, Febbo E, et al. Application of the target lipid model for deriving predicted no-effect concentrations for wastewater organisms. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2007;26(11):2317-2331.

Speakers

Environment Track Introduction

Paul Alivisatos, PhD

(also a panelist)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
website

Zakri Abdul Hamid, PhD

Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia

Fathy Saoud, PhD

Qatar Foundation
website

Environment Track Panelists

Adel Sharif, PhD

University of Surrey
e-mail | website

S.A. Sherif, PhD

University of Florida
e-mail | website

John Spengler, PhD

Harvard University
e-mail | website

Research Presenters

Mohammed Al-Jubouri

Texas A&M University at Qatar

Mariam AlMaadeed, PhD

Qatar University
e-mail

Wignyo Andi-Suliono

Total Research Center Qatar
e-mail

Mert Atilhan, PhD

Qatar University
e-mail | website

Farid Benyahia, PhD

Qatar University
e-mail | website

Erik Braudeau, PhD

Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute
e-mail

Eric Febbo

ExxonMobil Research Qatar
e-mail

Ferdi Karadas, PhD

Qatar University
e-mail | website

Sara Abdul Majid, MSc

Weill Cornell Medical College
e-mail

Yehia Menawi

Qatar University

Yasir Muhildeen, PhD

Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute

Suhur Saeed, PhD

ExxonMobil Research Qatar
e-mail

Khaled Mohammad Saoud, PhD

Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar
e-mail

Robert Tuba, PhD

Texas A&M University at Qatar
e-mail

Student Speakers

Tareq Al-Ansari

Imperial College
e-mail

Noora Al Ghanim

Qatar University

Manir Al-Faisal

College of the North Atlantic–Qatar
e-mail

Abdullah Kayyali

College of the North Atlantic–Qatar


Erica Gies

Erica Gies is an independent environment reporter who lives in San Francisco. Her work appears in The New York Times, Forbes.com, The International Herald Tribune, New Scientist, Wired News, China Dialogue, Momentum, KALW radio, and other outlets. She covers energy, water, waste of many kinds, climate science and policy, green building and urban planning, ecosystem biology, and more. This year Erica co-founded This Week in Earth, a site that features pithy analysis of the week's science and environment news from of a wide range of professional journalists. In recent years she has been a fellow at Scripps Institute for the Environment and an energy fellow at Vermont Law School.

Sponsors

Presented by

  • Qatar Foundation

Distinguished Research Award Sponsors

  • ExxonMobil
  • Total
  • Shell

Other Sponsors

  • Chevron
  • Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar

Scientific Publication Partner

  • Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Journals

Speakers:
Paul Alivisatos, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (also a panelist)
Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia
Fathy Saoud, Qatar Foundation

Panelists:
S.A. Sherif, University of Florida
John Spengler, Harvard University
Adel Sharif, University of Surrey

Highlights

  • Researchers stressed the need to reduce carbon emissions, including through carbon capture, to make fossil-fuel industries more sustainable.
  • The researchers also discussed impacts of industrial development, such as from natural gas production in Qatar, on the environment.

Environmental research in Qatar is closely tied to energy

"Science serves society," said Paul Alivisatos, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in his keynote address. And society's need for science will grow in the coming decades, particularly in addressing large-scale energy-related and environmental problems. Climate change, for example, is perhaps the biggest threat facing humanity today, and our energy use is a big contributing factor. Also, as human populations and their demands for resources grow, we are seeing the limited supplies and vulnerabilities of those resources.

Although the Annual Research Forum (ARF) was international in scope, most of the environment presentations were focused locally on Qatar in particular, or the Arabian Gulf region in general. Because energy, especially natural gas, is the backbone of Qatar's economy, several researchers in the environment track described their work in trying to lighten the environmental footprint of fossil-fuels production, primarily via capturing carbon. Among other projects discussed, one team addressed the building of an air-quality monitoring system around Doha to help inform the government as it establishes pollution controls to protect public health.

Water was also a theme, but not as much as one might expect, considering that Qatar relies on desalination for nearly 100% of its freshwater. Thanks to this technology, which is energy-intensive and expensive, Qataris have not faced water shortages in recent years. However, the desalination process emits concentrated brine into the Gulf, making that body more saline. In addition, liquefied natural gas production uses significant quantities of Arabian Gulf seawater, and chlorinated seawater that has passed through the production system is discharged back to the Gulf. Marine biologists in Qatar are studying in detail how these emissions are affecting the marine environment. Similarly, local soil scientists are investigating how the overextraction of groundwater affects soil structure. Declines in these natural systems could prevent Qataris from desalinating water and growing their own food in the future.

Qatar aims to be a desirable research partner

A constraint on addressing such problems is that modern science in the Arab world is still young, given the paucity of the kinds of infrastructure that science hubs like the United States and Europe typically enjoy. Thus Qatar is encouraging the Gulf Cooperation Council to raise Arab nations' scientific status. "In industrialized countries, R&D's percentage of GDP is 2.5%–3.5%," said Zakri Abdul Hamid, science adviser to the prime minister of Malaysia. In most Arab countries "the level of spending on R&D is less than 1%," he said. Qatar, by contrast, has a target of 2.8%.

The Qatar Foundation's president, Fathy Saoud, spoke about Qatar's National Research Strategy. He said that universities in Doha's Education City aspire to "research education," meaning that research permeates virtually all higher learning, from freshman courses through undergraduate and graduate programs.

That strategy, along with the Qatar Foundation's highlighting of energy and the environment as major themes, appears to be paying off, as the work of the primarily Education City-based researchers presenting on the environment track suggested. Many of their research projects are supported by the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute.

This is important work, central to Qatar's drive to become a global center of science. But as Alivisatos pointed out, "there is one science," meaning that today's science is truly international as researchers around the globe collaborate. A global perspective is also critical for environmental studies, as local problems are tied to wider systems. Some early partnerships involving Qatar are emerging, such as with the foreign universities that have satellite campuses in Education City.

Meeting participants concluded that as Qatar continues to grow its reputation as a center of science, and its desirability as a collaboration partner, the environment track at the Annual Research Forum will likely become more international in scope. At the same time, other meetings around the world will benefit from the work that Arab scientists are conducting on their local environments.

Speakers:
Erik Braudeau, Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute
Sara Abdul Majid, Weill Cornell Medical College

Student speaker:
Tareq Al-Ansari, Imperial College

Highlights

  • A new discipline, called "hydrostructural pedology," integrates soil structure and the thermodynamics of water to more accurately reflect natural conditions.
  • Controlling ripple motion, moisture, and microbe populations could help to stabilize dunes that threaten infrastructural elements such as roads and could help preserve the diversity of organisms in the sea.

Soil and hydrology research

Understanding how soil and water interact is key to a wide range of applications, including water management, agriculture, infrastructural stability, and conservation of habitat. Two talks in this session addressed two such applications, and a student presentation considered food security for Qatar, a related topic.

In a presentation titled "Pedostructure and Pedoclimate: New Concepts in Soil Water Physics Leading Hydrostructural Pedology at the Heart of Agri-Environmental Disciplines," lead author Erik Braudeau, principal investigator at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), discussed a new discipline and a computer model for studying it. Braudeau observed that the existing discipline for studying water at the soil surface, called hydropedology, delivers data that do not accurately reflect what is happening in nature. First, the discipline looks only at local-scale soil processes while neglecting their interactions with watersheds and ecosystems. It also overlooks the impacts of human activities on the environment and agro-ecosystems.

Hydropedology's models follow a 40-year-old idea called the "representative elementary volume" (REV) principle, which considers only the gravity-driven movement in soil of free water from sources such as rivers, lakes, rainfall, and irrigation. It ignores the soil structure and thermodynamics of water that cycles through the soil, plants, and atmosphere. This is a major oversight, as the behavior of water in soil directly affects climatic conditions for organisms in the soil and in the air above the soil.

As a remedy, the authors proposed a new concept—structure representative elementary volume, or SREV—that takes into account the internal organization and hierarchy of the soil medium and allows for accurate modeling of the water cycle in the soil-atmosphere environment both locally and globally. They've dubbed their new discipline "hydrostructural pedology."

They have also created a new computer program to model the soil and its hydrostructural functioning at every scale of organization. Called Kamel, it integrates the global water cycle into the natural environment and agro-ecosystems, according to Braudeau, and the program allows researchers to characterize and model soils as physical and organized media for biological life. As a result, it can be used with models of other environmental disciplines. Braudeau called for QEERI to create a laboratory to study soils according to this new paradigm.

Stabilizing migrating sand dunes

Another team is studying dune ecology for the purpose of stabilizing dunes to conserve this disappearing habitat and to protect human-built infrastructure. In its southeast, Qatar has "barchan" sand dunes—those that migrate, driven by the wind. Sara Abdul Majid, a research specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College, explained that these mobile dunes are a disappearing natural habitat. Scientists believe they originated in northern Saudi Arabia and were transported by the wind to Qatar when sea levels were lower 4000–8000 years ago. Because the dunes scour the landscape as they pass toward the southeast coastline (due to the wind direction), Qatar's dunes are slowly blowing into the sea, clogging sea lanes south of Umm Said, said Majid. Another effect is the reduction of organic substance of the marine environment, which threatens marine diversity.

Researchers are working to stabilize barchan sand dunes. (Image courtesy of Sara Abdul Majid)

She and her colleagues are studying whether microbes and moisture beneath the dune surface can help stabilize dunes. They also recorded diurnal variations of temperature and humidity below a dune surface for the first time and established the migration velocity of Qatar dunes west of Umm Said. Ultimately the researchers hope to manipulate ripple motion, moisture, and microbe levels in dunes so as to stabilize those that threaten infrastructure such as roads as well as oil and gas plants in Umm Said.

Other countries around the world also have barchan dunes, and some have attempted to stabilize them by planting trees or erecting barriers. But these measures are costly, time-consuming, and often unsuccessful, said Majid. Other methods, such as spreading oil mulch, can damage the environment. And dune size often makes it impractical to remove the sand mechanically. Hence her team's quest.

Toward greater food security

Because Qatar is an arid limestone peninsula not well suited to agriculture, the country imports about 90% of its food, said Tareq Al-Ansari, a graduate trainee at Imperial College in London. And as Qatar's population in 2020 is projected to double from its 2009 levels, it will grow even more dependent on foreign food imports. Meanwhile, climate change and water overextraction are making Qatar even less hospitable to agriculture. Gulf temperatures are projected to increase 1.8°C by 2040, 25% of the aquifers in Qatar have already been depleted and those remaining are being consumed at six times the renewal rate, and seawater intrusion is also an issue, said Al-Ansari. For greater food security, he proposed expanding the domestic food system, investing in agriculture in other countries, and strengthening Qatar's position in the global market.

Considerations for evaluation of investments in food security. (Image courtesy of Tareq Al-Ansari)

The Qatar National Food Security Program calls for sustainable local production, which by necessity requires desalinated water. However, in some areas of coastal Qatar, the water is already too salty to desalinate with some technologies, Al-Ansari said. Some crops might be grown hydroponically to reduce water consumption, he added.

Qatar must also invest in the development of water-intensive crops grown in other countries. Diversifying global suppliers would reduce the risk of supply interruptions. However, outsourcing to environmentally-stressed countries can prove to be counterproductive on a global scale. For example, Sudan and Tanzania are not water secure in the long term. In light of such obstacles, the program also recommends that GCC countries unify their imports. Acting together in the global market, they will be better able to compete with Europe, the United States, and China for food when supplies decline.

Speakers:
Robert Tuba, Texas A&M University at Qatar
Mariam Al-Maadeed, Qatar University
Mohammed Al-Jubouri, Texas A&M University at Qatar

Highlights

  • A new liquid-liquid biphasic reaction system makes catalysts more effective.
  • Adding locally available, environmentally benign reinforcements to recycled polymers not only strengthens them but also reduces their greenhouse gas footprints.
  • New software can help improve the effectiveness of acid stimulation in oil and gas wells.

Toward environmentally benign chemistry

Chemicals are among the building blocks of our modern industrial society, but they come with a heavy price for human health and the environment. Two presentations looked at ways to lighten the impact.

"Green chemistry" aims to develop less hazardous and more energy-efficient chemical products and processes. In that spirit, Robert Tuba and his coworkers at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX, and Texas A&M University at Qatar in Doha, are working to develop a liquid-liquid biphasic reaction system to make catalyst systems more effective. If it works, reactions requiring high temperature and pressure could be conducted more efficiently in moderate reaction conditions such as room temperature and atmospheric pressure, Tuba explained.

Because it is industrially relevant and extensively studied, Tuba and his colleagues have focused their efforts on a ring-opening metathesis polymerization (ROMP) reaction that turns the cyclic olefin norbornene (and its derivatives) into a plastic. The catalytic process opens the organic rings of the monomers and links them together to form polynorbornene.

In many catalytic processes, a ligand must dissociate before the catalytic cycle can begin. The reassociation often slows the rate at which that happens. Tuba thought that if the dissociated ligand could be separated from the active species, then he could achieve faster reactions. His two-phase system seeks to prevent such reversal by separating the product of the reaction, dissociated phosphine, from the running reaction. The catalytic process takes place in the organic solvent phase, whereas the fluorophilic, synthetically modified phosphine slips into the fluorous solvent phase and is thereby whisked away from the possible reverse reaction.

Testing the two-phase reaction with chlorinated solvents (CH2Cl2 and CDCl3) as the organic solvent and perfluoro(methylcyclohexane) [PFMC] as the fluorous solvent phase, the team documented accelerations in the biphasic process when compared with reactions in chlorinated solvents using a monophasic process. The biphasic system with PFMC showed a dramatic acceleration when the catalyst was added to the reaction mixture as PFMC solution.

A liquid-liquid biphasic reaction system. (Image courtesy of Robert Tuba)

Now that they have proven the principle, Tuba and his colleagues are working to demonstrate biphasic ROMP polymerization with more environmentally benign solvent systems—for example, by substituting chlorinated organic solvents for toluene and using hydrophilic phosphine ligand and water in place of fluorophilic ligand and fluorinated solvents. The study was recently published in ACS Catalysis.

Strengthened polymers with reduced carbon footprints

Because of their durability and low cost, plastics have become so ubiquitous that polymer particles are washing ashore on the planet's most remote beaches. Thus end-of-life considerations, such as finding ways to make plastics recyclable, are paramount.

Plastics pollution has rapidly become a problem in the Gulf region as its economy has modernized and boomed. In Qatar, plastics account for 15% of waste, according to Mariam Al-Maadeed, head of materials technology at Qatar University. Qatar is also the source of much plastic, being one of the largest polymer producers in the Middle East.

Because the recycling of plastics has recently become more economically feasible, industries are increasingly incorporating recycled plastics into commodity and structural applications. However, in some cases inclusion of recycled polymers can weaken the plastic products. AlMaadeed and her team are working to improve the performance of such products through the use of additives and by optimizing processing techniques.

For example, the team had discovered that including recycled content from polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, or low-density polyethylene in place of virgin plastic made the resulting product too weak for certain applications, such as stadium seats, in Qatar, where extreme summer heat can cause significant alterations in materials' properties. To strengthen the polymer to a point where it had the necessary thermal stability, they experimented with adding varying volumes of locally available, environmentally benign reinforcements such as glass fiber, wood, mica, and date-palm fiber. To measure the strength of each resulting composite material, the team looked at its activation energy—the energy threshold that must be surpassed to allow polymer-chain movement within a solid structure. "Determining the activation energy can lead us to better mechanical properties, better thermal properties, better cost, and better environmental impact," said Al-Maadeed.

Ultimately the researchers achieved substantial improvement in the mechanical properties and thermal stability of selected polymer systems, owing to the synergistic effects of complementary additives. For example, they created a polypropylene-composite formulation for use in Qatari structures that retained its mechanical properties up to 86°C, up from 55°C for conventional polypropylene.

Efforts to incorporate recycled plastics into new products must take into account several issues. (Image courtesy
of Mariam Al-Maadeed)

The team also used lifecycle-assessment software to project the environmental impact of this novel formulation. Among the many possible variables to measure, the team chose to examine the greenhouse gas emissions produced over the polymer-composite's entire life, including production, transport, manufacture into products, product use, and recycling. They estimated that the novel polymer formulation had approximately half the environmental footprint of the virgin polymers it was designed to replace.

Predicting acid-stimulation performance

A third presentation addressed specific improvements in Qatar's fossil-fuel production system. During most of the fossil-fuel era, engineers have used acid stimulation to enhance the productivity of oil and gas wells, said Mohammed Al-Jubouri of Texas A&M University at Qatar. In Qatar almost every well undergoes acid stimulation prior to production, primarily to remove any well-bore damage.

Because overstimulation can reduce well productivity and understimulation can be ineffective, the well operator typically measures injection rate and pressure during the process; such monitoring can help evaluate effectiveness and provide real-time guidance. Software called Horizontal Wells Acid Stimulation was developed as part of a joint industry project between Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and a number of oil and gas companies, including Qatar Gas.

Now a research team at Texas A&M University at Qatar, led by Mashhad Fahes, an assistant professor of petroleum engineering, has used the software to analyze the performance of three acid-stimulation jobs conducted in Qatar. Comparing the software's predictions to the actual performance of the wells, the researchers found that the software is not only capable of predicting well performance but in some cases can be used to ensure the success of the acid-stimulation job.

Speakers:
Mert Atilhan, Qatar University
Ferdi Karadas, Qatar University
Farid Benyahia, Qatar University
Khaled Mohammad Saoud, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar

Student speakers:
Noora Al Ghanim, Qatar University
Manir Al-Faisal, Abdullah Kayyali, College of the North Atlantic–Qatar
Yehia Menawi, Qatar University

Highlights

  • New cyanuric organic polymers demonstrated what Qatar University researchers believe to be the highest CO2 adsorption capacity available.
  • By mixing captured CO2 with brine and ammonia to precipitate the gaseous CO2 as a stable bicarbonate solid, two local environmental problems could be addressed at once: carbon dioxide emissions and brine pollution in the Arabian Gulf from desalination.
  • Gold nanoparticles on cerium oxide show great promise for the efficient low-temperature oxidation of carbon monoxide.

Facing the threat of climate change

The most all-encompassing environmental problem facing Earth today is climate change, the result of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere emitted by humans' burning of fossil fuels and disturbance of ecosystems. Climate change is affecting weather, agriculture, water availability, infrastructure, and nations' economies. The seriousness of the issue was reflected in the abundance of environment-track presentations that focused on reducing, capturing, and or converting carbon dioxide emissions. Most of these papers addressed mitigation rather than prevention, perhaps because the Gulf region's economies depend on fossil fuel exports. The three student papers focused on this topic as well, reflecting the issue's growing importance among young researchers. Another presentation involved nanotechnology as an aid to reducing carbon monoxide pollution.

Highest CO2-adsorption capacity currently available

One presentation, "Advanced Polymeric Materials with Exceptional Carbon Dioxide Capture Capacities," described a novel class of polymers with a high capacity for CO2 adsorption, the process by which molecules adhere to a surface. Mert Atilhan, an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at Qatar University and the paper's lead author, said that the most mature technology for capturing CO2 emissions is amine-based solvents. However, this option can cause corrosion and has limited CO2-uptake capacity.

The team's new materials, cyanuric organic polymers (COPs), do not include metal complexes and thus are lighter and have a more stable pore structure than existing materials, which allows them to capture more CO2 at high pressures. The team started with amidozine, a molecule known to have a high affinity for CO2, and interlinked individual amidozine molecules to create extended networks of molecules. They used different organic linkers to create seven COPs with different pore sizes and surface areas. They got "great results," according to Atilhan, with their best-performing material, which delivered CO2-adsorption capacities of up to 127.6 millimoles of CO2 per gram of material; the team believes this is the highest CO2-adsorption capacity currently available. Atilhan noted that the polymers are robust, inexpensive, and reproducible.

The team then compared their materials with similar materials such as metal organic frameworks. At every temperature and up to 200 bar, they found better CO2-capture performance with the COPs—up to four times better. Increased pressure produced a rise in CO2 adsorption. Metal organic frameworks have good capture capability because of their enormous surface areas, he said. However, the COPs don't have a high surface area. Instead, the materials achieve high adsorption due to the smart functional groups the team designed into the chemical complex, said Atilhan. "We believe this is the reason why we are getting high capture performance." They are checking that theory by means of computation as well as through further experimental work. The team submitted its work to Science in November 2011.

Alternative pathway to CO2 adsorption

Another group, also led by Mert Atilhan, studied the CO2-adsorption capacities of hydroxy metal carbonates. Ferdi Karadas, a postdoctoral fellow in Atilhan's research group, explained that the team's goal was to design materials to capture and separate CO2 from natural gas streams pre- or post-combustion. Their work considered two parameters that are important for carbon dioxide adsorption: carbon dioxide capacity and low regeneration energy. For that reason they chose magnesium oxide and zinc oxide, both of which have relatively high CO2 capacity and low regeneration energy.

They tested hydroxyzincite, hydromagnesite, mcguinnessite, malachite, nullaginite, and hydrocerussite using the state-of-the-art Rubotherm sorption apparatus at Qatar University, and obtained adsorption and desorption isotherms of these compounds up to 175 bar. None of the carbonates showed any regeneration concern, meaning they didn't release the CO2 after adsorption.

The team then performed thermogravimetric analyses to test the stability of the compounds at different temperatures. At high temperatures, all of the carbon-associated composites released CO2 and water, said Karadas. Up to 300°C, the clusters were all stable. Of the carbonates studied, hydroxy nickel carbonate showed the highest performance: 1.72 millimoles of CO2/gram of adsorbent at 175 bar and 316 K, the lowest temperature they studied. Low temperature and high pressure favor sorption performance.

Reducing emissions both of CO2 and brine

Farid Benyahia, head of the chemical engineering department at Qatar University, presented his work aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions through its sequestration while simultaneously reducing the amount of concentrated brine discharged to the Arabian Gulf by the region's desalination plants.

Benyahia said the debate about reducing carbon emissions in the Gulf is too narrow, hinging on carbon capture and storage. But carbon sequestration requires the right geology, he said, and that of the Gulf is suboptimal. In addition, Qatar's gas fields are relatively new and not depleted—and therefore not available for storing CO2. Another major regional environmental problem is the large quantity of concentrated brine that desalination plants dump into the Arabian Gulf, which is essentially a closed sea. As a result, it has become dramatically more saline in recent decades.

Benyahia and colleagues are addressing both problems together by mixing captured CO2 with brine and ammonia, which precipitates the gaseous CO2 as a stable bicarbonate solid. To lower the cost of ammonia, it is recycled—harvested from ammonium chloride in the solution left over from the precipitation step; adding calcium oxide to the ammonium chloride releases ammonia gas.

"It seems very simple, but in our two years' work on these chemical reactions there have been challenges," he said. "But we've managed to overcome most of them." The team is discussing the possibility of partnerships with companies in Qatar, even as an ongoing study on its approach is being funded by a National Priorities Research Program grant from the Qatar National Research Fund.

Nanophase catalysts

Khaled Mohammad Saoud, assistant professor of physics at Virginia Commonwealth University, discussed a nanotechnology-based approach to reducing carbon monoxide pollution from automobile engines, fuel cells, and other sources. In his presentation he explained that gold and copper typically have been used as oxidation catalysts in gas-exhaust emissions because they offer high activity and stability, even in the presence of moisture and sulfur compounds. But they are expensive given the typical quantities of gold and copper used, as well as sensitive to sulfur poisoning.

Nanophase metal and metal-oxide catalysts could provide improved catalytic performance due to their controlled particle sizes, large surface areas, and more densely populated unsaturated-surface coordination sites. Saoud found that a gold-copper alloy nanoparticle showed higher activity than gold or copper alone. He attributed this result to copper oxide formation within the alloy's nanoparticles. However, gold nanoparticles supported on cerium oxide exhibited higher catalytic activity than gold, copper, copper oxide, and the gold-copper alloy. The gold nanoparticles react strongly with cerium oxide.

Saoud believes the catalytic activity that converts CO to CO2 is enhanced due to the small size of the gold nanoparticles, which help disperse the gold across the cerium oxide surface; the expanded surface area of the gold and cerium oxide; and the electron transfer between the gold and cerium oxide. Gold nanoparticles on cerium oxide show great promise for efficient, low-temperature carbon monoxide oxidation, he concluded.

Reducing a wasteful industrial practice

"Flaring," a common activity in oil and gas production, is the burning off of streams of natural gas and other hydrocarbon vapors that would be technically difficult and uneconomic to conserve via conventional means. Some 100 billion cubic meters of such vapors are flared per year worldwide, emitting 400 million tonnes of CO2 and wasting 1,600 trillion Btu of energy. But international priorities on energy conservation and global climate-change mitigation are pressuring oil and gas producers to reduce flaring. In Qatar, the Ministry of Environment has established a new standard that caps the flaring rate to 0.3% of inlet feed gas.

In a presentation titled "Flare Reduction Options and Simulation for the Qatari Oil and Gas Industry," student Noora Al Ghanim addressed ways of helping to meet that standard; the talk was based on work done under the supervision of Majeda Khraisheh, an associate professor in chemical engineering at Qatar University. Using a program called Flarenet, Khraisheh's team of student researchers first conducted a flare-reduction assessment study of the Qatari gas industry. In that effort they focused on a liquefied natural gas plant as a model because Qatar is a world leader in LNG production. They then explored ways to reduce flaring at a Qatar Chemical Company ethylene plant, which uses ethane as a feedstock.

It is during startup and shutdown when chemical plants produce most of the unwanted gases that are currently flared. But the students found that if plant operators substituted methane (a product recovered during standard plant operation) for the ethane feedstock when starting up and shutting down, they could cut the time of those operations significantly, with a proportional decrease in the amount of flaring. Using methane reduced the plant shutdown time by two weeks, which lowered operational cost by 93%, according to Al Ghanim. Using methane for startup lowered cost by 95%. Both changes would require negligible modification of the plant, she said.

Cleaning up GTL

Another student paper overseen by Khraisheh also considered ways of reducing the pollutant emissions of the fossil-fuel industry. Called "Environmental Life Cycle Impact Assessment of Gas-to-Liquid Processes: SOx, NOx, and CO2 Emissions," the research attempted to quantify the environmental impacts of gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel processes. The team evaluated 18 impact categories classified into three areas—human health, ecosystem quality, and resources—and it compared these burdens imposed by GTL diesel processes to those of biomass biodiesel processes.

Based on the study's results, the presenter, Yehia Menawi, a Masters student in environmental engineering at Qatar University, made suggestions to minimize the environmental impacts of GTL technology through improved design and operations techniques, including capturing and using waste heat, using low-NOx burners, and capturing and storing carbon.

Occupancy detection comes home

Students Manir Al-Faisal and Abdullah Kayyali, from the College of the North Atlantic–Qatar, offered a way to save energy in residential buildings. Motion sensors have long been a way of saving energy in commercial applications; when workers leave an area, the sensors, detecting no motion, turn off the lights. But such applications haven't worked well in homes because people often sit still there for long periods.

A communication network devised to improve motion sensor occupancy detection. (Image courtesy of Abdullah Kayyali)

Al-Faisal and Kayyali described how they eliminated the need for constant motion in a room in order to detect occupancy there. A door frame-mounted sensing device they created uses infrared emitters and receivers rather than passive infrared and ultrasonic technologies, as well as a microprocessor, to detect occupancy and turn lighting and air-conditioning systems on or off in response. The microcontroller can be programmed to send signals over different household networks, including wireless, WiFi, and X-10 Networks, so it can communicate with existing home automation networks and appliances, regardless of brand.

Speakers:
Suhur Saeed, ExxonMobil Research Qatar
Eric Febbo, ExxonMobil Research Qatar
Yasir Muhildeen, Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute
Wignyo Andi-Suliono, Total Research Center Qatar

Highlights

  • A new testing technique can assess the marine impacts of chlorine easily and inexpensively.
  • An ecological baseline survey of the Qatar Marine Zone found approximately 100 species not previously reported there.
  • An air-quality monitoring system will develop the infrastructure to measure air quality around Doha and generate real-time air quality maps. This is intended to be the precursor to further development of the air-quality monitoring infrastructure on a larger scale and as to promote establishment of regulations aimed at improving public health.

Monitoring development's impact on the environment

The diverse presentations in this section report on methods for environmental monitoring: toxicity of chlorine on fish, a biological baseline survey, and an air-quality measurement system around Doha.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) production at the Ras Laffan Industial City (RLIC) in northeastern Qatar uses significant quantities of Arabian Gulf seawater in the once-through cooling water systems. To prevent biofouling, intake seawater is dosed with low concentration of chlorine-produced oxidants. Seawater that has passed through the cooling systems is returned and discharged back to the Gulf. The State of Qatar's environmental regulatory agency expressed interest in understanding the potential effects of these oxidants on marine life. Suhur Saeed, senior environmental scientist at ExxonMobil Research Qatar, studied whether embryos of Arabian killifish (Aphanius dispar), a species indigenous to the Arabian Gulf, could work as an indicator species. Saeed described how she and her colleagues developed chlorine toxicity data using a marine fish embryo toxicity (mFET) test, which was designed as an alternative to the use of juvenile and adult fish in standard approaches.

The researchers found a developmental stage-dependent response to chlorine: During earlier stages, chlorine's effect on embryos was small, even at elevated concentrations; in later developmental stages, however, embryos were more sensitive to chlorine. The researchers believe that the egg's membrane provides a barrier against chlorine during the early stages of embryo development.

Saeed and colleagues also found their results to be consistent with existing toxicity tests, giving them confidence that killifish embryos could be an effective indicator organism to measure environmental risk in the Qatari coastal area. The embryos have advantages over existing-test subjects. They are easy to breed; easy to "read," thanks to the transparency of embryos; and require a shorter study duration and reduced sample size, thereby reducing waste.

The researchers now plan to run a flow-through system that will manifest a consistent concentration of chlorine, reflecting conditions in Qatari waters. They expect to submit data from that study to the Ministry of Environment, which should help formulate effective and balanced policies to better protect the country's marine environment.

Baseline survey of coastal and marine species

Qatar's rapid industrialization in recent years has had an impact on its marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Eric Febbo, environmental management research lead at ExxonMobil Research Qatar, who also worked on the killifish testing, coordinated an ecological baseline survey of a still relatively pristine area in northeastern Qatar. The area, north of Ras Lafan and south of Ar Ruwais, is a marine zone with no major industries. The team recorded physical, chemical, and biological data in the study zone.

The field data were collected between February and April 2010 along a 35-km stretch of coastline. The study zone extended 20 km offshore and as far as 1 km inland. While other baseline studies have been done in Qatar, this one was very comprehensive, Febbo maintained. The study documented a large number of organisms not previously reported in the Qatar Marine Zone, including approximately 100 species that belong to 8 phyla, 17 classes, 36 orders, and 63 families. "I was amazed at what's actually out there," he said.

This survey's substantial data will provide a benchmark for gauging the results of future monitoring and thus inform conservation and preservation efforts. The team also overlaid the maps they created to determine which areas have particularly high diversity; this "sensitivity mapping" could help policymakers set priorities for environmental preservation. The study will be delivered to the Qatar Ministry of Environment and made public.

Real-time air-quality maps for Doha

Rapid hydrocarbon-based economic development, including booming construction in Qatar’s capital city Doha, has led to a decline in air quality, causing residents’ health to suffer. As a prelude to improving ambient air quality, scientists first need to measure and monitor it at strategic sampling locations within the study boundary. They expect that the results will help the Qatar Ministry of Environment set standards and implement control technologies, said Yasir Muhildeen of the Qatar Environment and Energy Institute. He then turned the podium over to Wignyo Andi-Suliono of Total Research Center Qatar for a presentation on such a monitoring endeavor.

The map shows the study boundary of the pilot project to assess air quality and air pollution dynamics. (Image courtesy of Wignyo Andi-Suliono, Philippe Julien, Pascal Cheneviere, and Claude Sadois)

Andi-Suliono and his colleagues are developing a pilot project to assess air quality and air pollution dynamics within the study boundary of a 15–20-km radius of the Qatar Foundation—an area that includes most of Doha. The project includes the development of air-quality monitoring infrastructures and systems to generate real-time air-quality maps. The team believes that the number and locations of air-quality monitoring stations has to be optimized— without neglecting the validity of the data and how representative it is—to capture the modulation of air quality by domestic and industrial activities.

One of the main emission source within the project boundary is derived from traffic. But small-scale variability of concentrations of traffic-related pollutants, particularly NO2 and VOC, will not be accurately captured by fixed monitoring stations that are located away from the roadside. For that reason, the project will also integrate a network of microsensors deployed at varying distances along the major roads.

This air-quality monitoring network will be integrated, through a communication system, to collate and processed real-time data; then it will be used to produce real-time concentration maps with the aid of an advanced interpolation technique called kriging—which uses supplemental data such as those obtained from emissions inventories and land-use patterns—to derive concentration information between measurement points. The resulting data will allow analysts to assess vehicle traffic's influence on air quality. The research team believes that its work will contribute to public awareness of this important health issue. "People need to know the quality of the air they breathe," said Andi-Suliono.

While the Annual Research Forum addressed numerous environmental issues, given their extent it could only go so far. Participants left the following questions as inspirations to further efforts by researchers and policymakers:

Given that the world's climate is rapidly changing because of elevated greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere, can CO2-mitigation strategies mature fast enough to make fossil fuels a prudent energy choice?

Will Qatar, constrained by its harsh environment and limited water resources, be able to sustain its booming population?

How will climate change affect Qatar's ability to support its people?

How can Qatar integrate traditional building techniques, long shown to be compatible with the local climate, into the implementation of modern infrastructure?

For how long will desalination be a workable source of water, given the Arabian Gulf's increasing salinity caused by hydrocarbon production and previous desalination discharges?

Will "green chemistry" replace traditional chemical processes that have an negative effect on the environment?