Food and water supply has always been something of a challenge for the Middle East, where lack of rainfall and suitable agricultural land puts pressure on the resources that are available. With growing populations across the region, food and water security is increasingly a pressing issue for governments, but now a new project from Masdar City, Abu Dhabi's sustainable city, is aiming to create food and water from little more than sun and air, and old shipping containers.
Along with its projects for sustainable buildings, energy, transport and more, agriculture has always been part of Masdar City's remit. Masdar held its first international competition for vertical farming nearly ten years ago in 2009, and Yousef Baselaib, executive director, sustainable real estate, Masdar City, explained that ‘urban farming' was always a part of Masdar's integrated master plan, because the city is intended to be a prototype for all aspects of city living.
Masdar's initial projects in agriculture didn't immediately yield results however, in the main because the technology involved was not developed enough, and the methods and technology were also not suitable or adapted to the climate and conditions of the Middle East - very hot summers, coupled with high levels of humidity and dust.
Baselaib said: "We stopped when we saw that the international market was not mature enough, it was not at the commercial stage. We did some piloting, but it was very expensive when it comes to water consumption, power, and cooling."
One of the most important aspects of sustainability is that the technology is affordable enough to be practical, Baselaib added, and with water especially being such a scarce commodity in the UAE, Masdar and its partners have had to rethink models and systems to get to a situation where they have prototypes and concepts which they believe can be turned into game-changing new models of sustainable agriculture.
Masdar's efforts to develop ‘smart' agriculture have been spurred on by the fact that Masdar city now has its first residential tenants, with 1,500 people living in Masdar today, rising to 5,000 by 2020, so the city would like to develop new ways to meet their needs, including food supplies.
Another important aspect of agriculture, where Masdar is playing a critical role in supporting the national goals of the UAE, is food and water security. Masdar has signed a strategic partnership with the UAE Office for Future Food Security, to develop initiatives to enhance the country's capacity in food security, and find ways to make the most of precious resources.
"In our region, water is more important than oil, we don't have a lot of water sources, so conserving water and agriculture come together," Baselaib said. "We have to find ways to do more agriculture with less water wastage. All the buildings we have in Masdar city are already consuming 40% less water than conventional buildings - water is the main driver for sustainability in our region."
Madsar has a number of different programs that are supporting this drive for more efficient agriculture, with one of the main ones being an initiative to create mobile, sustainable, automated farms, inside the ubiquitous steel shipping container.
The basic concept is quite simple - take a vertical farming system, and install it in a converted shipping container, allowing it to be transported to wherever the farmer wants, or wherever there is space and where food is required. The container creates a closed environment, allowing for strict control of lighting, temperature and CO2 levels for optimal growing conditions, while the vertical, hydroponic farming methods, with crops ‘planted' in vertically-arranged sleeves, creates the most efficient use of water and nutrient supplies.
Where the project becomes really interesting however, is that Masdar and its partner Madar Farms, believe that each container can be made completely self-sustaining, using solar power for lighting and climate control, and water harvested from atmospheric humidity. The production process will be fully automated, with minimal need for intervention - even the pilot only needs tending once a week - and an app will be used to alert the owners to any changes in status or when it is time to harvest the crop.
With a completely closed system, Masdar believes that once the containerised farms can be made economically viable, it will be possible to put the systems anywhere - to serve individual families in their own compounds, on top of buildings in the middle of the city, or even arranged in farms in the desert, with no need for any sort of connection other than than a WiFi signal.
"The ultimate goal for us is to create sustainable farming off-grid," Baselaib said. "Today we are 40-45% there - when I say off-grid, it can be implemented everywhere, even in isolated rural areas."
An important goal for Masdar is to create economically viable solutions, and many elements of the project contribute to that goal. Fifty-percent of the materials used in the container are recycled, and the systems can be constructed locally, Baselaib explained, reducing the cost. By producing crops in much closer location to the consumer, the container will also eliminate ‘food miles' - the distance food is transported from the producer to the consumer, a cost which is normally factored into the price of the produce, and which also contributes to carbon emissions.
The project is working to improve the yield from each crop - currently the container can provide the equivalent of 1.8 acres of leafy greens - so that the economics become viable for commercial production, and in future Masdar hopes that these containerised farms could support a whole ecosystem of new businesses around them.
The solar technology to power the containers is available, and Masdar already has a system on trial to produce water from atmospheric humidity. The ‘Source' system, from Zero Mass Water, is able to extract up to 15 gallons of drinking water per day from the air, using a solar-powered system, which requires minimal maintenance.
The main challenge that still needs to be addressed is a familiar one for sustainable projects, Baselaib said: "We are investing in harvesting water from humidity - which we have a lot of, we have power from the sun, and the only gap is the storage of the energy, the batteries.
"I personally believe that the breakthrough for any further development and use of renewables, is the storage. Solar is not considered a baseline for any country, because it cannot work 24-7. Wind is changeable, you cannot predict the wind, but we can predict the sun, at least in our region, so that is why I believe, whether it is batteries for cars or batteries for agriculture, that storage will be the breakthrough in the renewable age. We are waiting for batteries - if can we create this ecosystem, we can start to use our huge desert for agriculture."
Masdar is already engaged with battery research with a number of companies and educational institutions, across multiple vertical sectors, he added, and the containerised farm is not Masdar's only agriculture project. A new pilot for outdoor vertical farming, will be presented at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week later this month, and Masdar also plans a 10,000 sqm greenhouse project.
The agricultural projects are typical of Masdar's approach of working with commercial organisations, startups, universities and other stakeholders to find new solutions and tailor them so that they will work with the UAE's climate and other conditions, and to develop them to a state where they can be commercially viable for widespread deployment.
For the sustainable container farm project, Baselaib said that ensuring commercial viability means fine tuning of system and accounting for economic factors such as actual cost to the consumer of power and water, but he believes that the project can produce a commercial model within one or two years.
"The normal total cost of ownership of starting a new farm in the middle of the desert, to apply the infrastructure, it would cost a lot of money," he said. "This [model] is easy to implement, it is cost effective, and would be competitive, this is always the aim - to make it competitive."