Researchers are exploring the possibility of growing cotton in Qatar, based on an idea born from a 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.
The concept was mooted in a recent study by Qatar Shell Research and Technology Centre (QSRTC), Texas A&M University at Qatar (Tamuq) and The Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME), Qatar Foundation (QF) website reported.
“We have been assessing the plausibility of growing fodder crops for a few years, and now the viability of utilising 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,” revealed, Ali al-Sharshani, a senior researcher at QSRTC.
QSRTC is an anchor partner company of Qatar Science & Technology Park, part of Qatar Foundation Research, Development, and Innovation (QF RDI), an ecosystem fostering such scientific research and technological advancement for national benefit and global impact.
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 6,000 tonnes 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 fertiliser 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. Reuse of biosludge is well known in North America, Europe and Australia,” explained al-Sharshani.
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 analysed and controlled as per international standards for traces of heavy metals.
The capacity of the land in Qatar to hold nutrients and water is poor and therefore the agricultural industry in Qatar is highly dependent on using fertilisers to improve crop yield.
“No matter what you grow, you need fertiliser. We have an enormous amount of a byproduct that can be used as a soil enhancer. 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 backed by six years of intensive research on the potential of biosludge to act as a soil enhancer in Qatar.
“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,” he said.
Al-Sharshani noted that the purpose of the study was not just to grow the grass but to analyse the crop tissue to understand the fate of chemicals and metals present in the biosludge in the soil and plant tissue.
“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.
“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,” added, al-Sharshani .