It is a different kind of life for students at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) in Abu Dhabi. Located in Masdar City — which is set to become the world's first carbon-neutral and zero-waste city — MIST is for students who have chosen careers that will serve a more sustainable environment.
The first resident of the city moved to the green campus in September. A few months in, many say university life is more than just being environmentally conscious. It is about adopting a new way of living.
Maitha Al Kaabi is an Emirati student pursuing a masters degree in water and environment engineering. Living on campus at Masdar, it is the first time the Dubai resident has lived away from her family.
"It's hard because, as a local who comes from a closed society, the environment in here is a bit new for me," she said.
After finishing her undergraduate studies at Al Ain University, Al Kaabi said life at MIST has given her the opportunity to grow. From living with her family to living on her own, "I started to be more independent, which is great," she said.
But Al Kaabi didn't choose Masdar for the independence. It just happened to be part of the package. "I think it's related to our problems in the UAE," she said, when asked why she picked her major.
It has taken students a while to get used to life at Masdar. For one, it is car-free. Students who don't live on campus have to park their cars in designated parking lots outside the borders of the city and then walk, bike or jump on the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) to get around.
The PRT, an electrically powered driverless car, can carry up to four people and goes at a speed of up to 40 km/h."It's kind of challenging. When people say it's hard, yes it's hard," she said, "because being environmentally friendly means putting in some effort too."
The buildings at the institute are installed with sensors that turn on when motion is detected. So lights turn on and the water runs only when there are people around.
"The system will shut down or close after ten minutes of getting into the shower," said Al Kaabi, speaking of water consumption at the dormitories. "The girls don't like it," she said, laughing, "but it's OK, because that's our message."
Rana Qudaih, who is studying for her masters in mechanical engineering, said it didn't take her much time to get used to life at Masdar. For her, change was in the details. "For example, I can't control the air-conditioning. Before, I used to switch the AC on and off but now I can't. I had to live with it and now I'm fine," she said.
The Palestinian-born student will graduate next May and will be among the first MIST graduates. The institute, which is in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has given students the opportunity to travel to the United States and participate in showcases at MIT.
"It's good for my résumé," Qudaih said, who has been to MIT twice through the institute. The experience has opened up new horizons for the young student. "I feel I can go abroad for my PhD," she said.
With nearly 200 enrolled students, the institute has attracted candidates from places as far as China, adding to the campus's diversity.
Yonas Habtemichael, a first-year masters student at MIST, is from Eritrea. "During orientation, we were talking about where we were from. Only one guy among the 100 who were there knew where Eritrea was," he said, laughing.
"For one, there are no postgraduate courses in Eritrea," he said, when asked why he chose Masdar. He also wanted to be part of a sustainable city.
Habtemichael hopes to finish school and go back to his country. "I definitely have Eritrea in mind," he said.
The institute has been able to attract both local and international students to Abu Dhabi. "At Masdar, we're not just locals, we're international," said Al Kaabi, who said she has made friends with students from Korea, Lebanon, Nigeria, the US and other parts of the UAE.
"In the UAE, it's a closed culture and society but when you bring in new students, you explore and learn new things," she said. "We come from different cities and the class is our place."
Matteo Chiesa, a professor at the Laboratory for Energy and Nano Science at MIST, feels it is important for the students to live in such circumstances and understand how important it is to conserve energy. "It's important because that's what all our research is about," he said.
It is like a living learning experience. And what better place to learn about sustainability than in a sustainable city such as Masdar?
"In the future, the institute will monitor the consumption of energy in every room. There will be some competition about who is consuming the least amount of energy," Chiesa said.
Even the laboratories are built in an energy-efficient way. "For example, my windows are half-covered so there is no need for the air-conditioning to be running at full speed," he said.
It is a real challenge to run a laboratory under energy constraints, he said. When you are doing an experiment, you need to try several times before you come up with something. Things may go wrong and you need to try multiple times, which requires more energy, he explained.
"This is where we haven't found out the recipe yet. If we're going to develop something new, we are going to be able to fail — and that requires energy," he said. "This is the big challenge."
While the idea is still being debated, Chiesa said if put into practice, experiments would have to be done differently. "We'll have to see what it means in terms of time," he said.
But is Masdar City going to be just carbon-neutral or a zero-carbon city as well? To be carbon-neutral means to offset the amount of carbon being produced. However, to be a zero-carbon city means to not produce carbon at all. "Zero carbon is the real challenge," Chiesa said.
At present, Masdar is defined as a clean technology cluster that aims to be one of the world's most sustainable cities.
Masdar City, which is scheduled to be completed by 2025, is still far from where it should be. "We have the aspiration of getting there and we are working on it," Chiesa said.
While the plan continues to remain on track, its budget has been reviewed and cut down several times. Based on the latest news reports, the project's estimated cost has fallen to $16 billion (Dh59 billion) from an original budget of $22 billion.
There has probably been a lot of enthusiasm, with a commercial and marketing hype over what the city will be, but all things aside, it is not going to be easy, the professor said.
"They've marketed the achievement before the achievement is there," he said.
"People like me are here because of the challenge." So are the students. "The reason they are here is because they see the challenge and want to change the world," Chiesa said.
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology provides graduate programmes focused on sustainable technologies and policies. There are at present seven masters of science programmes, in addition to an interdisciplinary doctoral degree programme. The masters of science programmes are computing and information science, electrical power engineering, engineering systems and management, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, microsystems engineering, and water and environmental engineering.
Visit www.masdar.ac.ae for information on entry requirements.
Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is fully powered by solar energy. A 10-megawatt solar power plant, the largest in the region, generates clean energy to support the ongoing construction activities at Masdar City and power the institute. The plant produces excess energy, which goes into the Abu Dhabi grid.
Another 1-megawatt solar-power system has been built on the roof of the Masdar Institute buildings, which provides up to 30 per cent of the buildings' overall energy requirements every year.
The future of the PRT system
Masdar City is piloting its Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system, which is made up of electric-powered, automated, single-cabin vehicles.
Magnets embedded in the road are used to locate their positions and on-board sensors detect obstacles in their path. They are also powered by a recyclable battery that recharges while the vehicles are standing at the stations between trips. The vehicles can travel up to 40 kilometres per hour on straight roads and 25 kilometres per hour on curves.
News reports have said Masdar plans to scrap the PRT system.
When "Weekend Review" asked Masdar about it, they said that "in the past two years, there has been a surge in the development of electric and robotic vehicles in the commercial market and we wish to study these to make comparisons with our PRT system".