ABU DHABI // An agricultural project aimed at producing sustainable jet fuel from plants is a step closer to taking off.
Scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology hope to acquire 200 hectares of land they need to set up a demonstration farm in Abu Dhabi.
"Once we get it, we can start producing aviation biofuels," said Dr Jonathan Jed Brown, the director of the Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System Project at Masdar.
The institute, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Urban Council and the Western Region Municipality, is evaluating several land options, with a decision due to be made before the end of the year.
Producing the biofuel involves pumping water from the sea into agricultural ponds, where local shrimps and sea-bream are grown.
The wastewater from these ponds will then be used to irrigate fields of salt-tolerant plants, such as salicornia and local halophytes. From there, the water will drain from the fields into mangroves.
"Halophytes produce an oilseed, like soybean or canola, that can be used to produce jet fuel," said Dr Brown. "In addition, biomass, which are plants left over after we take the seed out, can be converted to energy by a different pathway."
The project's research was funded by Etihad Airways, Boeing, Honeywell and Safran, while the demonstration project has been funded by the Abu Dhabi Government.
Biofuels are identified as carbon-neutral because the plants from which they are generated assimilate carbon dioxide as they grow.
"It's a way to produce a commodity to potentially produce energy and fuel sustainably in arid regions using small water inputs," said Dr Brown. "It also allows for the reuse of water with minimal energy, as waste products from agriculture will go into the halophytes, which will then be used as nutrients for the plants."
Salicornia bigelovii - also known as the dwarf glasswort - is considered valuable as its seeds consist of one third oil.
"That particular species is only found in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean," said Dr Brown. "A decent amount of work has been conducted on it, and it produces a good yield of oilseed."
Dr Brown has collected salicornia seeds from Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, Massachusetts and Puerto Rico. A trial on a 400-square-metre plot of land at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai begins next month.
"We're going to be testing the different populations of salicornia that we collected and the different halophyte species to grow under seawater," said Dr Brown. "The seeds collected were separated in Arizona and they should be coming over in the next month. We are also trying to get some from Mexico."
It will take about six months to observe the plants' reaction to seawater and for one crop to grow.
One of the challenges in the process is the removal of salt from the biomass, to enable it to be turned into energy.
Five other projects have been launched - three geared towards waste conversion and salt balance, and two focusing on converting biomass into energy.
"The individual research projects will help us find out particularly how to take the biomass that we harvest and turn it into energy," said Dr Brown. "This biomass has more salt than other biomasses that you could use, which is one of the constraints."
But without a sizeable plot of land, the project can only perform small-scale trials.
"It'll take a while to plant the seeds on a large scale, once we acquire the land," said Dr Brown. "But if successful, it would be a way forward for arid-land countries to produce crops on coastal deserts with minimal water use."
Although Etihad Airways does not currently use biofuel, it hopes to do so in the future.
"The most fundamental issue is that traditional fossil-base fuel is a finite resource," said a spokesman. "All industries need to be looking at how they can make use of renewable energies such as solar and wind.
"In an ideal world, an alternative aviation fuel would be readily available at a cost equivalent to regular aviation fuel. It is important for the entire aviation industry to work in close collaboration with the entire supply chain to help enable this to happen."