A ‘Made in Oman’ biofuel

The next time you munch on some dates, think again before you toss the seed pits into the nearest trash bin! New research spearheaded by an Omani scientist and her team has uncovered the potential to harness high-quality biodiesel fuel from these pits. Indeed, a pilot study funded by Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) has all the hallmarks of a ‘Waste-to-Energy’ success story with the potential to unleash significant strategic, socioeconomic and environmental benefits for Oman, and the wider Arab region as well.
At the centre of the exciting initiative is Dr Lamya al Haj, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), who was part of the original multinational team of researchers that stumbled upon the astonishing secret behind the valuable resource hidden away in date seed pits.
Also playing a pivotal part in uncovering the biofuel potential of date seed pits was Dr Ala’a H al Muhtaseb, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at SQU, who is described by Dr Lamya as a researcher of prodigious talent and who will continue to play a role as Co-Principal Investigator. Fellow SQU researcher Dr Mohab al Hinai was a key member of the team as well but has since moved on to pursue other rewarding professional endeavours.
Dr Lamya’s scientific quest dates back to 2010 when she enrolled at the University College London (UCL) to pursue her PhD programme on the theme, ‘Genetic Engineering of Algae for Biofuel Production”.
The young Omani scholar recalls standing before a rather bewildered interview panel sceptical about her choice of research theme. “I remember being asked the question: ‘Coming from an oil-rich country as you do, why do you want to study biofuels?’ Apparently, I was also the first Arab research student to express a research interest focusing on biofuels at UCL. My response was simple: ‘In a region awash in oil, we tend to forget that we are dealing with a finite resource that will be exhausted some day. We want to be the first to be prepared for the future!’”
That candid response clinched the interview for Dr Lamya and set her on an exciting research journey that, she says, has potential game-changing outcomes for Oman’s, and indeed, the global community’s transition to sustainable, green energy alternatives.
“We are really passionate about biofuel as a clean, alternative energy resource and want to do something for our beloved country. We need to be suitably prepared for a future that thrives on sustainable energy resources.”

Dr Ala’a H al Muhtaseb

Clean fuel quest
Thus began the quest to synthesise clean energy from waste seed pits — an effort that started with a three-member team of researchers that included Dr Ala’a H al Muhtaseb and Dr Mohab al Hinai. The Research Council (TRC) — the Sultanate’s preeminent R&D institution — stepped in with initial funding for the project. With this support, Dr Lamya and her team managed to demonstrate the viability of producing biofuel from waste date seed pits.
“We succeeded in producing 100 ml of pure biodiesel from about 10 – 15 kg of waste date seed pits,” said the scientist. “Just to make things even more exciting, we sent the samples to UCL London for testing emission levels. The results were extremely heartening — emission levels were a lot less harmful compared with conventional fossil fuel emissions, and the greenhouse gas footprint was considerably lower as well.”
Not surprisingly, two research papers produced by the team received Best Research Paper accolades at international conferences held in France and the United States alongside eight scientific journal papers. Dr Lamya was also invited to present the findings at various events. “It was an exciting time for us, particularly because it was the first research of its kind being done in Oman, and indeed the entire Gulf region,” she remarked.
Not long thereafter, majority Omani government-owned Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) — which is the biggest independent funder of energy-related R&D in the Sultanate — voiced interest in supporting the initiative, according to Dr Lamya.
“I happened to run into PDO’s Managing Director, Raoul Restucci, and told him about our research project. He was very excited about it because it gels with PDO’s advocacy of sustainability and green energy. PDO is also a sponsor of the Ejaad initiative – a platform that seeks to bridge the gap between academia and industry.”

Funding support
Last month, Dr Lamya’s clean fuel initiative was among a handful of strategic R&D projects that secured grants at an event jointly hosted by The Research Council, Sultan Qaboos University and the Ejaad Platform. Besides extending funding support for the study, the grant also effectively recognised the immense commercial and economic spin-offs expected to emerge from the project once commercial viability is demonstrably established.
“A big thank-you to PDO for its generous funding support for this clean fuel initiative and an equal thanks to SQU and Ejaad platform for the support,” said Dr Lamya. “This effectively kicks off Phase 2 of our programme during which we will attempt to produce 100 litres of pure biodiesel from waste seed pits. This fuel will be tested in machines operated by PDO in the desert environment, and a comparison made of efficiency levels involving our biofuel, on the one hand, and conventional fossil fuels, on the other. If this pilot proves successful, we will then plan for Phase 3 which focuses on industrial-scale production.”
Although commercial-scale production is still some way off, Dr Lamya and her team envision a pivotal role for Oman as a regional – if not a global — producer of clean fuels. The young scientist is determined to ensure that the first biofuel refinery — based on the team’s landmark research — materialises in the Sultanate. Already, a number of Oman-based investors — sensing a potential clean-fuel goldmine — have pledged to invest in the refinery, when plans are eventually firmed up, she says.

Multiplier-effect
Longer-term, Dr Lamya foresees hugely beneficial implications for date farmers not only in Oman but across the wider date-producing regions of the Arab world. Date pits long regarded as waste — save for some very insignificant quantities used in the production of coffee powder — are set to become a commercially sought-after commodity. Around 10–15 kg of date pits are required to synthesise one litre of biodiesel in lab conditions.
Given the prodigious quantities of waste seeds that will be required as raw material for the biodiesel refinery, Dr Lamya reckons that collection and storage activities will proliferate across the Sultanate, and potentially around the Arab region as well. Already, a Rustaq based supplier has pledged to provide several tons of seed pits for the latest phase of the study, she said.
And there are positive spinoffs for the wider region as well. “If this succeeds — and there is every reason to believe it will — every single Arab country that has date palms as the central part of its natural heritage — has the potential to develop biofuel for its own consumption or export. We will be willing to share our expertise in support of economic development, as well as to advance environmental sustainability in this region.”
Auguring well for the success of the study is the One Million Date Palms Project – currently being implemented by the Diwan of Royal Court at the behest of His Majesty the Sultan. The project is seen as an important source of seed pits as raw material for biodiesel production in the future.

Green fuel alternatives
Dr Lamya, however, emphasises that biodiesel from waste date seed pits will not supplant fossil fuel consumption in Oman, or indeed, anywhere else in the world. “That’s not what we are aiming at!” says the scientist. “What we are trying to do is to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels through a contribution from biofuels, as well as from solar, wind power, and so on. The idea is that everyone should try to do as much as possible to produce cleaner and sustainable energy alternatives just to reduce this dependence on fossil fuels.”
What will eventually dictate the date seed pit-based biodiesel’s commercial success is the economics of producing it versus that of conventional fossil or even other types of biofuels, says Dr Lamya. Lab tests have so far proven that biodiesel from waste date seed pits is far cheaper to produce than alternatives synthesised from, say, palm oil, waste cooking oil, and so on.
A key factor underpinning the potential commercial success of this quintessentially Omani brand of biodiesel is the use of a special catalyst to convert the oil extracted from the date pits into biofuel – a process termed as ‘esterification’. The catalyst, the type of which is a closely-guarded secret, can be reused several times, thereby contributing to the economical production of biodiesel.
Dr Lamya’s team has until 2021 to come with the initial 100 litres of ‘Made in Oman’ biodiesel that already has the local scientific community, as well as clean energy advocates, agog with anticipation. To this end, the research team is currently focused on fitting out a laboratory at SQU with high-tech equipment and instrumentation necessary to demonstrate the viability of the project.
Already, a number of young Masters and research students — Omani researchers Moosa al Lawati and Maria al Kalbaniya, and Bahraini student Nawra al Sayegh — have been recruited to assist in the study. Further appointments are planned as well, given the ambitious scope of the project.
Buoyed by the groundswell of interest and support generated not only locally but internationally as well, Dr Lamya is confident that an Omani biodiesel brand is well and truly on the road to commercialisation. “We dream someday of driving into a fuel station that has a biofuel dispenser in Oman; it’s going to happen — it’s just a matter of time!” she enthused.

CONRAD PRABHU