The green university at the heart of a living lab

The Masdar Institute aims to take the lead in the fight against climate change. Hannah Fearn writes

September 10, 2009

This week, the first students to enrol at the world's only university dedicated exclusively to sustainability and green technology pulled up their chairs and settled in for the opening tutorials of the academic year. These students, beginning masters degrees at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, are not only studying sustainability, they are living and breathing it.

The Masdar Institute is based in Masdar City - a 6km sq walled development and an experiment in green living. The world's first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city, its residents will be involved in living trials and tests of the latest green technologies, designed to provide solutions to climate change and energy shortages. Many of these technologies are expected to stem from the institute itself.

"It is the opportunity to have a blank piece of paper to create a world-leading university focused on green technologies and sustainability," said Tariq Ali, vice-president for research and industrial relations at Masdar, who left Imperial College London after 21 years researching sustainable technologies to take the position.

"Other countries around the world have simply imported universities. They give them loads of money, and they come in and then go away. Abu Dhabi wanted to create its own university and fast-track it to become a world centre of excellence in these key areas. It's at the heart of the whole Masdar City project."

The Abu Dhabi Government has poured money into diversifying its economy with the intention of it becoming knowledge-based by 2030. This society, until now based almost exclusively on oil, is searching for a sustainable future.

Real-world tests

A partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Masdar Institute has been set up next door to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, which will test its researchers' inventions.

The city itself is an exciting prospect: fossil fuel-burning vehicles are banned, so residents must drive electric vehicles, and use a monorail for public transport. The university and its researchers will be involved in shaping the city itself.

"It's all about reducing energy demand because the city is going to be 100 per cent powered by renewable energy," Dr Ali said. "The university is embedded within a living laboratory. This ability to translate ideas and knowledge and fast-track them into the public domain is very exciting.

"There is no silver bullet for solving the climate change problem. We have to be able to adapt, research and innovate, and get products out to market to scale, to reduce costs so they become viable options. The big driver is to demonstrate technologies to scale, because it's only then that you learn how things work and how they don't work.

"We have the opportunity to do research that's going to impact on the development of the whole city."

The institute's first intake is being monitored within the halls of residence, where data about the consumption of energy and patterns of behaviour (how many kettles are boiled each day, for example) are being recorded and will feed into research about future energy needs.

Dr Ali said the postgraduate university will create "a pipeline of talented young people" to make up the next generation of leaders in research and industry, guiding the development of green technology.

'Our criterion is excellence'

Masdar's first intake constitutes 92 students from 22 countries: 12 are from the UAE, but young scientists from the US, Canada and the UK are among its number, too. The institute hopes to recruit up to 1,000 students within five years, and PhD study will begin next year. Students are taught in English.

This year, Masdar fielded applications from 1,200 prospective students heralding from 77 countries. Its popularity is due not only to its vital research programme, but also to the full scholarship given to all students, including "very generous" tax-free living expenses.

"Our criterion is excellence. We demand the standard of Oxford and Cambridge, MIT or Imperial. Our students have an excellent grade-point average," Dr Ali said.

By attracting students from around the world, Masdar hopes to spread renewable-energy expertise globally. "The mission as I see it is to accelerate the development of technology, accelerate the development of knowledge and accelerate the development of people," he said.

"The exciting thing about having a postgraduate-only university is that you're not stuck in single departments or single disciplines. You can organise yourself with an interdisciplinary approach."

The university will produce both blue-skies and applied research, with industry partners yet to be announced. Its focus will be on electricity, transport, water and waste systems, and partners have already been found for research into carbon capture and storage, plus sustainable biofuels for the aviation industry.

"What I think we offer firms is access to this living laboratory, to other companies that they may want to have a relationship with, and very bright students and faculty who have a relationship with one of the world's best universities," Dr Ali added.

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