ABU DHABI // Salicornia, a plant that grows naturally in the harsh climate of the desert and thrives on saltwater, seems a near-perfect candidate for biofuel production.
The plant, which has extractable oils in its seeds and does not compete with crops, has a low environmental footprint and seems to avoid major social issues associated with biofuel, such as food versus fuel, and depletion of fresh water resources.
And while Abu Dhabi seems one of the best places to farm it on a large scale, a student researcher at the Masdar Institute has prepared a life-cycle assessment of an aquaculture system for the plant, which is native to parts of the US and Mexico.
Brian Warshay, of New York, has developed a model for measuring the potential benefits of producing jet fuel from the plant.
Mr Warshay, 27, said the process could have a "net negative carbon balance", meaning the carbon produced in the conversion is less than the amount of carbon being converted.
"I am looking at the risks associated with it from an economic, environmental and social standpoint, and the potential upside in terms of the given climate and geography of the UAE," said Mr Warshay, a student of Masdar Institute's engineering systems and management programme.
Not only can oil be extracted from the plant's seeds but biomass from the stalk could be used to generate electricity, he said.
A large-scale system on Abu Dhabi's coast would use waste from shrimp and fish for nutrients, and would include mangroves to act as a natural biofilter for water returning to the sea.
As a pilot farm begins to take shape over the next five to 10 years, Mr Warshay's model would process data on its input and output to determine the carbon benefits.
A location for the farm has yet to be chosen.
"The uncertainty will narrow down as time goes on," Mr Warshay said.
The project looks specifically at jet fuel as the research team works closely with stakeholders Etihad Airways, the aerospace company Boeing and the petroleum refiner Honeywell UOP.
Mr Warshay is preparing to have his research published and hopes he will find a position in clean technology research and sustainability consulting.
A graduate of environmental science from Cornell University in the US, he worked for an environmental consultancy before coming to the Masdar Institute.