Environment

Desert plants to be put to the test for aviation biofuel production

Desert plants to be put to the...
The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)
The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)
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The pilot project that will test the potential of halophytes for biofuel production (Image: SBRC)
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The pilot project that will test the potential of halophytes for biofuel production (Image: SBRC)
The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)
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The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)

Whenever the topic of plant-derived biofuels is raised, the issue of turning valuable arable land over to the task of growing feedstock is generally not far behind. A discovery by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SRBC) that desert plants fed by seawater can produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks could help alleviate such concerns.

The SRBC, which is affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, is receiving funding from Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP to develop and commercialize a sustainable biofuel that emits 50 to 80 percent less carbon through its lifecycle than fossil fuels. Plants called halophytes, which are highly salt tolerant, could be the answer.

SRBC researchers found that halophyte seeds contain oil suitable for biofuel production and that the entire shrub-like plant can be turned into biofuel more effectively than many other feedstocks.

The pilot project that will test the potential of halophytes for biofuel production (Image: SBRC)
The pilot project that will test the potential of halophytes for biofuel production (Image: SBRC)

To test their findings, the SRBC team will create a test ecosystem over the coming year that will see two crops of halophytes planted in the sandy soil found in Abu Dhabi. The test site will use waste seawater from a fish and shrimp farm to nourish the plants, with the water then flowing into a field of mangroves before being returned to the ocean.

"The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks, which has potential applications in other parts of the world," says Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC. "This project can have a global impact, since 97 percent of the earth’s water is ocean and 20 percent of the earth’s land is desert."

Source: Masdar Institute

17 comments
BigGoofyGuy
I think that is totally cool and very green. It would be neat to 'grow' ones own fuel.
anobium
Interesting plant, Salicornia. You can eat it as Marsh Samphire or St Pierre in France. One of its common names was 'glasswort' as it was once burned in large quantities to produce soda lime used in glass manufacture.
brickandfanal
Each time they will irrigate with salty sea water, the evaporation is going to increase salt concentration in the soil, slowly transforming soil into a solid crust of solid salt desert, where nothing grow. Remember that the mangrove mention in the article, never encounter water more salty than sea water, and many time with a mix of fresh water from land. But with that contraption, they will receive a mix of highly salty water, that seawater will dissolve somewhat in seawater. Mangrove is probably not tolerant enough to survive in this harsh condition on long term. Where the freshwater mention in the article is coming from in the first place? From desalting plan that use oil to operate? Humm. . .
DavidMills
This is the kind of development that is not accounted for by those predicting the future of global warming, the unexpected development of a new source for energy that has the potential to be a game changer. (Compare to corn, clearly one of the stupidest sources for biofuel ever). Now, if we can only make the change quickly enough to photovoltaic, new batteries, green biofuels, and fracking geothermal!
ezeflyer
Would the mangroves be destroyed to produce biomass as in #6? Does the salinity of the water increase? Is the shrimp and fish operation done without dangerous chemicals, hormones, GE shrimp and fish?
Luis Serralha
very difficult to grow even with plenty salt water
Jason Unwin
Sounds good but how much energy will go INTO producing enough fuel to be worth the effort? It may take more energy and time than just staying with normal fuels.
Don Duncan
Oil is cheap there (UAE). Why are they trying to find an alternative to oil? If they show us how to replace oil with biofuels, their economy would crash.
Carmelmike
I am pleased to see this concept being moved forward, although less pleased to see that no mention is being made of where it originated: The Seawater Foundation. This was started as a way to sequester carbon in sandy coastal regions of the world by a man named Carl Hodges (who had his start in the early 1960's working on the original papers warning of possible global warming due to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere). Additionally, it was the Seawater Foundation which worked with Boeing to get approval for the use of salicornia-based fuels in their planes. Seawater Foundation started two pilot plants in Eritrea and Baja California to explore the practicality of these concepts. I have to assume that Dr. Rios was involved in the Baja project and has now moved it to Abu Dhabi...I hope with Dr. Hodges' good wishes.
VirtualGathis
I think this is interesting, but the annual production would never compare to algae production. The only advantage I can see to this setup is that it is easier to keep the saltwater constantly circulating rather than merely dumping it into an open vat. Constant circulation would combat the salinity increase from evaporation. Keeping the water covered would prevent evaporation from becoming a problem as the evaporation would return to the tank. An interesting question: would the run off be sufficiently higher salinity to operate a saline "battery" like this one: http://www.earthtechling.com/2011/04/stanford-salt-water-battery-a-better-design/