With water sustainability at the forefront of Qatar’s priorities, Dr Sami G Al Ghamdi, assistant professor under the Sustainable Development Division of the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), and his research group are analysing urban water supply technologies, environmental impacts of the built environment’s hydrologic cycles, and potential mitigation strategies like renewable energy for Qatar.  

As part of this research group, Mohamed Alhaj and Mehzabeen Mannan are both pursuing two streams of research related to the environmental impact of Qatar’s water desalination. Upon completion of their projects later this year, their findings will serve as a baseline to policymakers and water resources management organisations for an efficient water system that will help the built environment of Qatar.

Due to the peninsula’s geographic location and desert climate, which renders it without direct access to freshwater or harvestable river systems, Qatar today primarily relies on conventional thermal desalination technologies that use natural gas. This, however, presents a concern, as thermal desalination technologies are quite energy-intensive and ultimately create a significant environmental impact.

Mannan explained that similar to other GCC countries, Qatar is producing huge quantities of desalinated water annually. However, the environmental impact of the desalination process is still poorly understood in this region. He said that they were focusing on developing the life-cycle based framework to assess the impact comprehensively.

The desalinated water is ultimately consumed by the country’s growing population as well as its burgeoning local agriculture and food production sector. Speaking on his quest to find alternative solutions, Alhaj explained that they aim to identify environmentally-friendly, technically-sound, and economically viable alternative to current desalination technologies, since saltwater is a readily-available resource.

In the early stages of the project, Mehzabeen examined the environmental impact of water from thermal desalination in the life-cycle of the built environment. As part of her work, she investigated the carbon dioxide emission for producing water from different plant configurations for Qatar. The carbon dioxide emissions were found to be up to 12.6 kg per m3. Alhaj’s study – ‘Policy Recommendations for Sustainable Water Resources Management in Qatar’ – produced a comprehensive assessment of available water resources, consumption levels in Qatar as compared to the rest of the world. This contribution was honoured with the Qatar Sustainability Award 2017 in the Green Research Category.

Today, the team is working on robust computer modelling using real solar radiation data. Alhaj said they are now using specialised computer simulations to test the feasibility of solar power as a potential long-term solution. The computer model they developed, using the Engineering Equation Solver (EES), uses more than 500 equations to describe the solar desalination plant’s performance under variable conditions.

The uniqueness of this study is in its comprehensive approach, investigating the technical, environmental, and economic aspects of solar-driven desalination.

Here, we proposed using a solar technology called the solar linear Fresnel collector, which is a set of reflective mirrors that focus on incident solar energy. This focused energy is used to produce steam that powers the thermal desalination plant which uses the multi-effect distillation process. Desalination plants may be able to emulate this innovative reliance on a renewable and economically-friendly energy source. As such, this technology could greatly impact the future of sustainable water resources management in Qatar in particular, and the region in general.’

Mannan’s work also builds on this by investigating the potential reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by integrating solar thermal plants with thermal desalination.

Describing the cycle of this project, which was fully funded by HBKU and technically supported by its Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), Dr Al Ghamdi said they have seen their research evolve from a group study into a phase of digital experimentation, where the model is tested across a variety of simulated scenarios and conditions.

Every day, our belief strengthens that solar energy, in addition to generating power, is key to helping Qatar acquire water security as well. Ultimately, it is owing to our deeply rooted commitment to Qatar’s environment that we are using advanced life-cycle environmental assessment tools to explore an important angle that is often neglected in purely technical research.’

Dr Al Ghamdi’s research group comprises a total of 17 members including post-doctoral fellows, PhD candidates, and masteral students, all focusing on a range of issues integrally related to the sustainability of the built environment.

For more information about Dr Al Ghamdi and his research group, visit hbku.edu.qa.