Professor Tony Chan, President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), revealed tangible success in transforming research and studies conducted at the university into real-world inventions.
This led to the inclusion of KAUST on the list of research universities that were able to export technology outside its geographical borders, he underlined.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Chan pointed to the most prominent innovative technologies produced at the university, including the use of saline water to grow high-quality agricultural crops and the extraction of lithium – a key element in the making of batteries – from the Red Sea water, a discovery that prompted major countries, such as China and the United States, to express a desire to know more about the invention.
Asked about KAUST’s contribution to the Saudi economy, Chan replied: “KAUST has two missions: The first is related to basic research and university education, while the other is related to economics, development and innovation.”
“Part of our job is to contribute to the economy. We do this in a variety of ways, the most important of which is that we educate and train students, who will later contribute to the economy.”
He continued: “For example, many KAUST graduates work in the Kingdom for companies such as Aramco. More importantly, almost 30 percent of the international students graduating from our university stay in the Kingdom, working for companies there or setting up their own, which is really amazing.”
Chan emphasized that part of the university’s efforts is also to try to foster innovation and develop an economic system. He stressed in this regard the presence of a private fund to support students’ startups.
“The other part is related to environmentally friendly projects… KAUST has succeeded in placing Saudi Arabia on the global map of the environmental field through its academic research,” he added.
On KAUST’s contribution to giant Saudi projects, Chan said: “We have many research projects, as we cooperate with NEOM to build the largest coral garden in the world on the island of Shusha, which is part of NEOM.”
He added that KAUST had technology and scientific knowledge that qualifies it to implement this project, including a field called “marine architecture” that is specialized in the cultivation of coral reefs.
“NEOM represents new energy versus conventional energy,” Chan explained. “Here, I refer to the second initiative that emerged from the G20 Summit 2020 hosted by Saudi Arabia, which is related to the preservation and restoration of coral reefs in the deep seas and oceans at the global level. KAUST hosts the headquarters of this initiative.”
Chan also talked about the Red Sea Farms, a company that was established within KAUST as a startup, and now has turned into a large company that develops technologies to irrigate plants from sea water and to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The founder of the company is Prof. Mark Tester. All of his work took place in a small experimental station inside KAUST; but today, the company is operating at the commercial and investment levels,” he remarked.
Chan revealed that tomatoes, which are produced through this innovative technology, are exported to the United States.
“We are very proud of this achievement… It’s an evolution that took place within KAUST,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Asked about Saudi Arabia’s renewable energy wealth, the president of KAUST emphasized the importance of solar energy, saying that relying on oil was needed during the transitional period.
“[The Kingdom] will still need to rely on oil during the transition period from traditional energy sources to new ones. I don’t know if that will happen within 20 to 50 years, but I think that Saudi Arabia, on its part, realizes this. There are countries around the world, such as European nations, which have imposed bans on internal combustion engines,” he said.
He continued: “Within NEOM, there are attempts to fully rely on sustainable energy.”
“Nevertheless, oil constitutes a large part of the Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia has the sun and solar energy, and in order to exploit it, it needs devices that are characterized by a large degree of efficiency to collect this energy, as well as a high level of quality. It also needs to protect the solar panels from dust.”
Chan explained that when dust builds up on the solar panels, their efficiency declines.
“Today, we already have startups in the field of cleaning, using the NOMADD technology that has been available for a few years (automatic water-free dust removal device),” he said.
Regarding wind energy, he noted that NEOM enjoyed a lot of wind energy coming from the Red Sea and the currents that come from Africa.
“The sun and wind complement each other,” he added. “The wind comes when the sun is not shining, that is, at night, as a result of a change in temperature. But wind is an unstable source.”
Chan noted that the use of batteries is a solution to the problem.
“At KAUST, we invented a new method for extracting lithium from the sea a few months ago. There is a lot of interest in this innovation from entities such as Maaden, the mining company, as well as other government entities, including China and the United States,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
On Artificial Intelligence, Chan revealed that KAUST works in partnership with SDAIA (the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence) and also cooperates with Aramco, pointing to the establishment of the KAUST Artificial Intelligence Center for this purpose.
“When looking at the classification of Saudi Arabia in this field at the global level, we find that it occupies the 20th position. Eighty percent of all research papers in the field of artificial intelligence in Saudi Arabia come from KAUST. We are fortunate that we have the right people who provide the right research. This is certainly positive for society and the economy,” he stressed.