The sun-baked coastline of Abu Dhabi is not on most lists as a new hub of the biofuels industry. The Masdar Institute is hoping the region's next big renewable fuel source will be grown with an unconventional input: seawater. In a one-year study funded by Boeing, the aircraft maker, and Honeywell UOP, the fuels producer, Masdar will look at producing fuel from the oil of salicornia, a small green plant that grows in saltwater.
The plant could allow Abu Dhabi and other Middle East countries to use arid coastal land to produce significant quantities of biofuels, which can be used in the standard engines of cars, lorries and aeroplanes, said Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, a scientist at Masdar. "Although biofuels were not on [Masdar's] agenda previously, I think this will bring them up towards the top," he said. Researchers will look at existing studies to identify gaps in the knowledge about the process, and sketch out a life-cycle analysis. Masdar may also establish its own physical testing facility.
The world biofuels market is expected to grow by 20 per cent annually to the end of 2011, according to a study by the business research company Freedonia Group. Salicornia, variously known as sea asparagus, pickleweed and glasswort, is hardy, grows well in extreme heat and requires only saltwater. In theory, the advantages of producing fuel from saltwater plants, known as halophytes, are enormous. They do not consume valuable freshwater or take up arable land, the common criticisms lodged against biofuel sources such as corn and palm oil. However, comparatively little research has been conducted on salicornia and scientists would have to raise the plant's production of oil substantially for it to be considered a viable fuel source.
Oil from the seeds of the plant has been processed into fuel by scientists in coastal areas of Mexico and Eritrea on farms irrigated with saltwater canals. The plants yielded, in a low case, a ratio of about 8 million gallons (30.2 million litres) of fuel per year on 100,000 hectares of land, Dr Sgouridis said. "You would need to pretty much double the yield to start making strong commercial sense," Dr Sgouridis said.
Still, the history of agriculture includes many examples where plants and animals were made more productive, he noted. "It's like talking about cows 20,000 years ago," he said. "Obviously they did not produce as much milk as they do now." While salicornia seeds are used for oil, the rest of the plant does not go to waste. The tender green stalk is a common ingredient in salads in high-end restaurants or can be used as animal feed. Researchers are also looking at ways to convert the stalk into a solid fuel source that can be burnt to produce electricity, Dr Sgouridis said.
Development of biofuels, considered carbon-neutral because they release only as much carbon as they absorb, has been supported by the oil, car and aviation industries as a way for the world to transition to a low-carbon economy while using existing engines in aeroplanes and cars and maintaining current energy infrastructure, such as petrol pumps. Algae, which also produces large quantities of oil under the right conditions, is another candidate to become a significant source of biofuel.