A year-long study revealed the seeds of the "dwarf glasswort" could be a sustainable source of fuel for the aviation industry, as they are one-third oil.
Plant seeds could produce jet fuel
The unassuming salicornia bigelovii - commonly known as the dwarf glasswort - has succulent stems and leaves and thrives in salty water, where many other plants cannot.
But those properties give little indication of the American plant's greatest treasure: its seeds are one-third oil, which has raised the hopes of researchers that it might just be the sustainable source of biofuel the aviation industry has been looking for.
Biofuels are considered carbon-neutral because the plants or vegetation from which they are produced assimilate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as they grow, compensating for what is released as the fuel is burned.
After conducting a preliminary, year-long study, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has concluded that the plant holds enough promise to move ahead on a project designed to extract fuel from the salicornia's seeds.
In partnership with the Boeing Company, Etihad Airways and Honeywell, Masdar is searching for a suitable location to cultivate the plant.
"Eventually we are talking about a large-scale pilot farm," said Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, an assistant professor in engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute.
He said the ideal site would be as large as 200 square hectares, and that a low-lying area is essential, considering the plant's need for sea water.
The team working on the project has been growing the plant for about a month in a test plot at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai. Using a two-kilogram stock of seeds collected from wild plants in Texas, the sought to verify that the plant would grow in the UAE. So far, 90 per cent of the seeds have germinated.
"The germination rate of the seeds is very high," said Dr Sgouridis.
Researchers also want to find a way to integrate the farm with an existing aquaculture facility, such as a fish farm. Doing so would save money and minimise the project's environmental impact.
The plants, which must be kept moist at all times, would thrive if irrigated by the nutrient-rich, salty water of fish-farm effluent. In addition, using the effluent to grow the salicornia would help prevent its discharge into the open sea, thereby minimising the growth of harmful algae. Masdar researchers say that planting mangrove trees near the cultivation site would add another level of filtration.
Producing the jet fuel from the plant will be no problem, said Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable biofuel strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
"That has already been done," he said. "The challenge is how to grow large amounts of biomass and have positive effects on social and economic development and environmental impacts."
Etihad's Linden Coppell agreed. "The trial for this is making sure it is commercially viable."
Mr Morgan said that in contrast to other sources of biofuel, such as corn, salicornia was first identified for its sustainability and then considered as a fuel source.
"Sustainability: environmental, social and economic - those were the driving factors behind the design of the project," he said. "The system is being designed from the ground up, adhering to those principles."
"This system has the potential to transform the energy system," said Mr Morgan.
The project was showcased during the World Future Energy Summit, a green and clean energy conference in Abu Dhabi, which concluded yesterday.
Plant fast facts
* Salicornia bigelovii is one one roughly 2,000 species of plants known as halophytes, which are able to survive in salt water.
* Salicornia bigelovii, from which Masdar hopes to be able to produce jet fuel, can grow in water with a higher salinity than water found in most seas and oceans, said Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, assistant professor of engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute.
* The small plant has succulent stems and leaves, but it is the seeds that are of interest to researchers in Abu Dhabi, as their composition is around 30 per cent oil. Cultivation might even increase that amount.