Abu Dhabi's Petroleum Institute shows talent beyond energy

The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi is about much more than its name might suggest. Close to 2,000 Emirati students are enrolled at the engineering school – all future employees of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) – and they’re being encouraged to diversify their skill sets into innovation and entrepreneurship, to prepare for a […]

The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi is about much more than its name might suggest. Close to 2,000 Emirati students are enrolled at the engineering school – all future employees of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) – and they’re being encouraged to diversify their skill sets into innovation and entrepreneurship, to prepare for a future beyond petroleum.

The students’ creativity was recently put to the test when final year undergraduates presented the prototypes they have been developing over the past year as part of the institute’s Ebtikar (innovation) contest. Their challenge – to use innovative research to provide solutions to scientific challenges.

“Many of the ideas the students worked on were not necessarily related to the energy industry,” says the Institute’s president Thomas Hochstettler. “They also proved their skills in aeronautics and bioengineering.”

Mr Hochstettler’s favourite innovation was a portable beach volleyball set, complete with a rigid anchored post, easy instillation and ergonomic design. Other designs aimed to tackle the world’s more pressing issues, such as how to build a small wind turbine to generate enough power for the Petroleum Institute or how to harvest bio fuels from waste dates.

The team crowned winners in the mechanical engineering department – Ahmed Al Tamimi, Kareem Younes, Saeed Al Ali and Sultan Al Braiki – managed to harvest water from the atmosphere using a solar-powered atmospheric water collector.

“Renewable energy and water depletion are both hot topics now in the UAE, and as youth, we are encouraged to explore these fields”, says Mr Tamimi.

The team’s design is capable of harvesting at least one litre of water a day from the atmosphere, by utilising thermoelectric peltier coolers that are powered with a monocrystalline PV panel.

While the prototype could be used for farm irrigation, Mr Younes says it can also be adapted for cooling towers, or even desert camping trips.

While similar models exist in the market, Mr Tamimi says theirs is designed “for maximum efficiency” as although the initial cost to produce it would be high, the operating costs would be minimal. “The sun is there for power and the air is there for the water, so you don’t need any raw materials,” he adds.

The Ebtikar projects are the culmination of the students’ capstone graduation course. As an additional incentive, cash prizes were awarded to winning teams from each of the institute’s five departments – chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering, as well as petroleum geosciences. Each four-person team selected one of the 17 ideas proposed by their professors, and were handed Dh10,000 to buy the materials required to create the prototype.

“Some students shopped online, or from stores in Musaffah, and if they needed more specific equipment, they went through our procurement department”, says Mr Hochstettler.

The contest, now in its fifth year, is one of a number of steps taken by Adnoc to make its current and future employees more commercially minded.

In February, Sultan Al Jaber took over as Adnoc’s chief executive, with a mandate to evolve the company into “a more agile organisation”, just a month after the Petroleum Institute held its first ever Entrepreneurship Boot Camp, led by the former head of Masdar’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Centre, Dr Bruce Ferguson.

Last month, Adnoc’s new corporate branding was unveiled to reflect the changing ethos at the company.

And in November, the Petroleum Institute is set to open a US$90 million research facility, offering doctorates centred on petroleum engineering and energy. “Our hope is that we will bring the first PhD students here in September,” says Mr Hochstettler.

The Institute, which opened its doors in 2001 and started accepting female students in 2006, already has more female than males registered on their courses.

One of these is electrical engineering student Amna Al Suwaidi, whose team designed an ultra-high power density AD-DC converter to charge batteries. “We are using the latest technology, silicon carbide, which is more expensive but more efficient,” she explains. “I’ve only been sleeping two or three hours a night in the past week, trying to get it ready in time. But we did it.”

Other students took the challenge more in their stride. Yaseem Alduwaila enjoyed his group’s task to design and assemble a tele-operated mobile robot that helps firefighters locate a fire and find survivors.

“We designed an algorithm programming software that controls the arm of the robot, and can help firefighters know where to go to extinguish the fire”, he explains. “Our robot can go in first and go fast – it can go upstairs, and can recognise if there are any people present. It also has a sensor that measures the toxic gas, so if a survivor is found, we can guide him to a safe place until a firefighter reaches them.”

The most innovative aspect of the design is not the robot itself, but the interface the group designed to control the robot’s arm, explains team member Raad Alatouli. He has high hopes that his team will turn their robot into a commercially viable product. “We are planning to develop the software and to make it fully autonomous,” he says. “But we would need lots more funding for that.”

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