"Super Plants" Could Lead to Biofuel Breakthrough

Sand, seawater and science cultivating bio-energy research in the desert

March 09, 2016 in Environment, Technology

Boeing and its partners in the project - Etihad Airways, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and UAE jet fuel company Takreer - launched a new research facility in Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi International Airport to cultivate plants that will eventually produce renewable jet fuel.

The facility, which is the size of four football fields, uses two abundant resources in the Gulf region to test an unusual model of environmental sustainability, according to Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) at Masdar Institute.

“Seawater and sand, which most people consider a weakness when investigating bio-energy, turn out to be our strengths,” Rios said.

The secret to the experimental Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) is the salicornia plant, Rios added. Salicornia is a salt-tolerant halophyte, with a unique internal mechanism that allows it to grow in seawater. Its seeds contain plant oils that can be turned into jet fuel.

In addition, the plant’s sugars and proteins may also be used for biofuel and potentially other chemicals and pharmaceuticals, according to Rios. Groundbreaking research at the SBRC has also shown that these plants can produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks.

“I like to call it a ‘super plant’,” said Mohamed Al Ghailani, a student at Masdar Institute, which is focused on developing solutions to environment and sustainability challenges. “There is so much potential and there is so much that we can do with it, and that gives me the motivation to keep going.”

The food-production aspect of SEAS research is an on-site aquaculture farm that will grow shrimp and fish. Their waste nourishes the plants, which clean the water and air as they grow. The goal is to replicate this type of facility in regions with similar climates and resources.

“Hearing very credible experts in this area saying this is potentially gold standard when it comes to sustainability - it’s really so exciting,” said Linden Coppell, head of sustainability at Etihad, the UAE’s national airline, which operates a large fleet of Boeing airplanes.

Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, said that as the global community seeks to reduce carbon emissions, aviation is doing its part. “Sustainable aviation biofuel is poised to play an important role in meeting the aggressive emission-reduction goals industry has set,” Allen added. The SEAS facility in the UAE “shows real promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies.”

By John Flick