Clean Energy 4 Africa

Scientific research ultimately aims to either generate new knowledge or solve existing problems using systematic methods for the beneficence of humanity

The beginning

My research in renewable energy started in 2012 when I was a final year student at The University of Nottingham (Malaysia Campus) in the BEng. in Mechatronics engineering program. I choose to work on solar energy specifically since it is the renewable energy technology with the most hype about it! My adviser then, Prof. Yousif Abakr, suggested working on designing, fabricating, and testing a solar water boiler. The boiler uses curved mirrors to concentrate incident solar radiation and transfer this energy as heat to a working fluid (water). This exercise was quite difficult then. I worked on system design using a CAD software (Pro Engineer), fabricated the system myself (with lots of deficiencies!), ran several field tests, learnt to use computer tools for modelling the optical performance of the collector, learnt to use pyranometers and data loggers, and wrote a “mini thesis” and defend it!

Although this was only a bachelors project, yet I started reading scientific papers then and learnt to interpret the data and assess the scientific contribution in the literature. I will not say that I understood 100% of what I read, but at least I started becoming familiar with the scientific language. This project gave me a lot of confidence and boosted my interest in solar energy research which was critical in successfully completing my MSc. research 2 years later.

Samples of my work in the bachelor’s final year project

The Masters project

Transitioning to the MSc. level research was an exciting phase for me, since I was fortunate to join the MSc. in Energy Technology program, at The National University of Malaysia (UKM), that focuses on renewable energy technology; covering engineering, computer modelling, economics, and policy. I studied topics such as energy economics and management, photovoltaic technology, materials science, and hybrid renewable energy systems. In addition, I was extermely privileged to work with a world renowned expert in renewable energy as my MSc. supervisor; Prof. Kamaruzzaman Sopian, director of the Solar Energy Research Institute at UKM. Moreover, I was introduced to renewable energy systems optimization using the HOMER software and this was something that sparked a long-lasting interest in modelling tools.

Computer modelling tools (whether used for design, analysis, performance forecast, or optimization) are extremely useful and save time, money, and effort. In addition, they allow designers to investigate and compare different system configurations, assess economic metrics, and predict long-term performance which is critical for decision-making!

My MSc. project investigated the technical performance and economic feasibility of solar photovoltaics and solar dish Stirling engines as candidate technologies for decentralized power generation in Sudan. In this project, I used SAM (System Adviser Model) software to model the performance of two 2 MW plants; one using solar PV and the other solar dish Stirling engines. The project also examined the influence of financial incentives in the system’s levelized cost of energy and net present value. Ultimately, in this project, I wanted to explore how we can scale energy access in Africa through micro-grids powered by renewable energy.

The MSc. project phase was very critical in my development as a researcher since I learnt a lot of new concepts about renewable energy technologies and was introduced to the challenges of finance in this market. There are three important issues I realized during my masters project phase that relate to renewable energy in Africa:

  • The influence of accurate renewable energy resource assessment on project bankability
  • The key role of micro-grids in rural electrification
  • The importance of a multidisciplinary approach when tackling the energy access issue in Africa; taking into account technology, human capacity, and regulations to create an enabling environment

Read my full MSc. thesis here.

How my Ph.D. research started?

My Ph.D. journey started in 2015 when I joined the Sustainable Development Division at the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. I knew that I only wanted to work on solar energy technologies and this made the process of selecting an adviser quite easy. After completing the university’s course requirements, I immediately started working on finding a suitable research topic that is doable in 3 years, aligned with my interests, and relevant to the needs of Qatar. My PhD adviser, Dr Sami Al-Ghamdi, was a key person in significantly enhancing my research skills, learning to work within a research group, improving my research quality, and learning to incorporate life-cycle thinking into my research.

What was my research on?

My research was on the applications of concentrated solar power in seawater desalination. I chose this topic because it addresses a critical issue in Qatar which is water security. Given the scarcity of renewable water resources in Qatar (as noted by FAO), the high groundwater withdrawal rate, and the high per capita consumption (approx. 200 m3/year), the country relies on desalination for 99% of municipal water consumption. Conventional desalination technologies are environmentally unsustainable, consume immense amounts of fossil fuels, and burden the economy.

My research aimed to investigate the potential of integrating concentrated solar power technology with seawater desalination by considering the technical, economic, and environmental aspects.

Pillars of a sustainable solar desalination process

What did I actually do?

I did a lot of computer modeling work!

I developed extensively detailed mathematical models to simulate the performance of a solar-powered thermal desalination plant. The plant uses low pressure heat generated by a solar collector (known as: solar linear Fresnel collector) to vaporize saltwater and condense the generated vapor into freshwater in a series of stages. The model I developed using the Engineering Equation Solver software allowed me to optimize the plant configuration and examine performance under variable operating conditions. I also developed a cost model for this plant that allowed me to examine how the final water cost (in $/m3) varies as the plant scale and various cost assumptions vary. Finally, I evaluated the environmental rating of the proposed system, as compared to conventional plants, using an assessment method know as: life-cycle assessment, which was implemented using the GaBi software.

What did I accomplish after 4 years of research?

Your greatest achievement as a graduate researcher is NOT what school you attended or which professor was your adviser or even you GPA…rather it is your peer-reviewed publications and your contribution to the community!

One of the many things I learnt from my adviser, Dr. Sami Al-Ghamdi, is that peer-review is very essential for graduate level research because it is a riguours evaluation process that gives you a good idea of the quality of your work (the more prestigious the journal, the greater the sense of accomplishment!).

I also learnt from him the value of community outreach for graduate researchers. As a scientist or a researcher, your utmost goal must not just be publishing papers and attending conferences, rather, you should also give back to the community whether it is through teaching, volunteering, or any other social initiatives.

After four years in the PhD program, my research work resulted in several scientific peer-reviewed papers (in some of the best journals in the areas of renewable energy and sustainability), several conference presentations, and several awards. I also took part in many community outreach events within the University and also within the research group.

My entire scholarly output (papers, conferences, awards, etc) is given in the Scholarly Achievements page.