How biofuels can benefit the UAE – and Etihad too

Etihad Airways has long championed collaboration as essential to stimulating innovation and driving real change within the transportation industry.

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As the flag carrier of the UAE, Etihad Airways has a critical mandate to help drive the country’s economic and social growth to ensure its competitiveness in the 21st century. And the ability to innovate is central to our success.

The fundamental role that innovation plays in propelling the nation forward was recently underscored by the launch of the National Innovation Strategy. The strategy provides a clear roadmap to enable the UAE to stimulate innovation in seven sectors: renewable and clean energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space. Etihad has a proven track record of advancing innovative solutions in many of these sectors, including education, energy and, of course, transportation.

In the education sector – a core focus area for the airline – Abu Dhabi is already benefiting from our strategic initiative to develop the national workforce. Today, we are creating employment opportunities, motivating young people and equipping them with the professional skills that empower them to fulfil their potential in an ever more competitive economy. In fact, our well-educated, skilled workforce has more than 1,700 Emiratis contributing to our success, accounting for over 18 per cent of the core workforce.

The National Innovation Strategy also emphasises the important role that public-private partnerships will play in developing new technologies, products and services.

Etihad has long championed collaboration as essential to stimulating innovation and driving real change within the transportation industry. That’s why we’re excited by our participation in a groundbreaking research project with Masdar Institute, Boeing and others that could put Abu Dhabi at the forefront of a global movement to create sustainable, alternative fuels whose production supports – not competes with – food security and water conservation.

Through an integrated, closed-loop system, the technology uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp – for public consumption – and irrigates plants rich in oils that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production. The plants thrive in arid desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land to grow. And lastly, mangroves indigenous to the UAE are used to eliminate nutrients and waste from the food production before the water is discharged back into the sea.

This game-changing research promises to turn deserts into farmland – irrigated by seawater – to produce both bioenergy and food. And considering the UAE imports nearly 90 per cent of its food, the research has tremendous implications in addressing the country’s food security, while preserving its precious water reserves. In one stroke, the research has the potential to commercialise cutting-edge technology, supports efforts to ensure food and water security and contributes to the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy.

The research is being funded through a public-private partnership – the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium – established to develop technology with the promise of producing a clean, alternative fuel supply for the aviation sector. In addition to Masdar Institute, Etihad and Boeing, partners include Honeywell UOP, Safran and General Electric.

The partnership, with the support of the Abu Dhabi government, aims to take the integrated bioenergy system to commercial scale after proving its viability through a pilot project located at Masdar City – Abu Dhabi’s low-carbon urban development.

This is not the only initiative Etihad is leading to develop alternative sustainable fuels in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, a major initiative known as BIOjet Abu Dhabi: Flight Path to Sustainability was announced to engage a range of stakeholders in government and civil society to build the commercial framework and partnerships needed to develop a sustainable, aviation fuel supply chain in Abu Dhabi.

BIOjet Abu Dhabi was announced one day after Etihad conducted a demonstration flight with a Boeing 777 powered in part by the first UAE-produced aviation biofuel from an innovative plant biomass-processing technology. The biofuel was partially converted from biomass by Total and its partner Amyris. Takreer, the wholly owned oil-refining subsidiary of Adnoc, did the final distillation, adding the UAE to a handful of countries that have produced and flown on their own aviation biofuel.

As these projects clearly demonstrate, Abu Dhabi has the ability to become an innovation powerhouse, exporting not only products but knowledge around the world. Etihad is proud to be a part of that effort.

James Hogan is the president and chief executive of Etihad Airways.

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