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Story | Research
10 June 2021

QF project to find out if cash crops could be part of Qatar’s future

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Image source: Caleb Holder, via Shutterstock

Qatar Foundation’s QNRF project to investigate the possibility of using industrial waste as fertilizer to grow non-food crops

Researchers are exploring the possibility of growing cotton in Qatar. As surprising as it may sound, the possibility of growing such a crop in the country is being explored to enhance sustainability.

The idea was born from the drive to find a use for a type of industrial waste called biosludge, which is nutrient-rich organic matter, and hence can be used as a soil enhancer, as per a recent study by Qatar Shell Research and Technology Center (QSRTC), Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) and The Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME).

Team members of the project.

QSRTC is an anchor partner company of Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP), part of Qatar Foundation Research, Development, and Innovation (QF RDI). QF RDI ecosystem is fostering such scientific research and technological advancement for national benefit and global impact, with QSTP being its centerpiece.

Pearl GTL located in Ras Laffan is the world's largest plant that converts natural gas into liquid hydrocarbon products and generates relatively clean water containing organic acids and alcohols, which when treated in aerobic biotreaters generate biosludge. It generates approximately 6000 tons of dry biosludge annually. The sludge is rich in organic matter and can supply plant nurients such as carbon, nitrogen phosphorous, which can result in fertilizer savings.

Conventionally, this biosludge had been going straight to the landfill. With every passing year, the need to come up with sustainable solutions has intensified, and that is what gave birth to this idea

Ali Al-Sharshani

“Conventionally, this biosludge had been going straight to the landfill. With every passing year, the need to come up with sustainable solutions has intensified, and that is what gave birth to this idea. Reuse of biosludge is well known in North America, Europe and Australia,” said Mr. Ali Al-Sharshani, Senior Researcher at QSRTC.

The origin of biosludge in this study is industrial process water, which means unlike municipal biosludge, it is devoid of pathogens – disease-causing organisms. Because of its industrial nature, it has to be analyzed and controlled as per international standards for traces of heavy metals.

“We have been assessing the plausibility of growing fodder crops for a few years, and are now assessing the viability of utilizing biosludge for growing cash crops like cotton as part of a Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) project between QSRTC, TAMUQ, MME, Qatar University (QU) and Wageningen University.”

No matter what you grow, you need fertilizer. We have an enormous amount of a byproduct that can be used as a soil enhancer. And, it is not unheard of; it’s a norm in other parts of the world, and we are aiming to develop that use case and knowhow in Qatar

Dhruv Arora

It is common knowledge that the land in Qatar is infertile. It’s capacity to hold nutrients and water is poor, and therefore the agricultural industry in Qatar is highly dependent on using fertilizers to improve crop yield. In fact, according to the World Bank, Qatar ranks second in the world in terms of kilograms of fertilizer consumption per hectare of agricultural land.

“No matter what you grow, you need fertilizer. We have an enormous amount of a byproduct that can be used as a soil enahancer. And, it is not unheard of; it’s a norm in other parts of the world, and we are aiming to develop that use case and knowhow in Qatar. We are hopeful that starting with cash crops like cotton or jute, followed by site greening will be a good beginning. Something that would allow us to stop putting it into the landfill while potentially being of economic value,” said Dr. Dhruv Arora, Research & Development Technology Manager, QSRTC.  

QSRTC’s out-of-the-box approach is bold but credible, it is backed by six years of intensive research on the potential of biosludge to act as a soil enhancer in Qatar.

We are looking at species of cotton that have a low water demand. There is a particular species that isn’t white as cotton normally is, but is brown. It is able to resist the climate in the Middle East and is currently being grown in Oman as well

Ali Al-Sharshani

“In our proof-of-concept study, we successfully grew buffel grass – a type of crop used as animal feed, in pots containing typical Qatari agricultural soil mixed with biosludge over a 12-month period.”

Al-Sharshani explained that the purpose of the study was not just to grow the grass but to analyze the crop tissue to understand the fate of chemicals and metals present in the biosludge in the soil and plant tissue.

Cotton is an energy-intensive crop; it comes at enormous environmental expense, so does it make sense to grow it in a desert?

“We are looking at species of cotton that have a low water demand. There is a particular species that isn’t white as cotton normally is, but is brown. It is able to resist the climate in the Middle East and is currently being grown in Oman as well. Other industrial crops like jute and sisal are also being considered,” said Al-Sharshani.

Outdoor test beds using bio sludge in soil to grow cotton.

For QSRTC, the project isn’t just about growing cotton, Al-Sharshani said: “That will hopefully be one of the outcomes, but I would say its more about the laying the ground work for what non-food crops can be grown in Qatar and how feasible they would be both economically as well as environmentally.”

“The end goal for us at QSRTC is closing the loop by finding ways to make our processes more sustaintable. It is not an easy task but it is ideas like these that will help allow us to inch towards that goal, slowly but steadily,” said Dr. Sabah Solim, Water Treatment Lead, Pearl GTL. —Lead Principal Investigator on this project.

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