Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi aiming to produce aviation fuel from plants

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology has acquired land for a demonstration farm that will help produce sustainable jet fuel from plants.

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ABU DHABI // An agricultural project aimed at producing sustainable jet fuel from plants has entered a new phase.

Scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology have acquired 200 hectares of coastal land in the Western Region to set up a demonstration farm.

The Dh64.2 million-venture involves pumping seawater to an aquaculture farm where fish and shrimp 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 that will be used as biomass.

The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System Project plans to be 100 per cent sustainable once operational, using aquaculture to eventually produce biofuels.

“There’s no freshwater in the UAE,” said Dr Alejandro Rios Galvan, the institute’s director of sustainable bioenergy research consortium. “All the water comes from desalination so attaining freshwater is very expensive. Only 3 per cent of the world’s water is fresh so that gives us our vision to become the premier research centre in the development of biomass using arid land and salt water.”

Last year, Dr Jonathan Jed Brown, the project’s director, collected seeds from the US and the region. Earlier this year, they were planted in a 400 square-metre plot of land at the Dubai-based International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture for trials.

“Halophytes are plants that can grow in salty conditions,” Dr Galvan said. “He planted squares of these seeds and we’ve given them different levels of salinity in the water, different sun exposure and different amounts of water to find out which ones grow the best.”

Preliminary results were said to be interesting.

“The next step will be to analyse the results to see which populations performed best,” Dr Brown said. “That means which produced the most seed or the most biomass.”

Masdar plans to plant mangroves on the land as early as next year. But it will take at least five years for the system to be fully functional.

“In 2050, we’ll supposedly be nine billion people[on Earth],” Dr Galvan said. “There will be a need for protein so there’s very limited ways in which it can be produced. Aquaculture will be growing at double digits, not only in this region, but worldwide because of this need for protein to feed people.”

Another sustainable aspect of the project is to use the leftover biomass to produce biogas.

“It is used to produce electricity, for instance, which is bioenergy,” Dr Galvan said. “We’re still at the experimental stage but they’re producing good results and we can use that electricity for the system’s pumps.”

The aim is also to produce biofuels for the aviation industry.

“Salicornia produces long, finger-type vegetables that inside contain small seeds,” he said. “They have a high oil content. Once you crush them you get vegetable oil that can be refined into biosynthetic kerosene, which is commercial fuel for aviation.”

So far, he said, Etihad Airways has used the fuel as a one-off experiment on one of their cargo planes from Seattle to Abu Dhabi.

“KLM has been using it regularly once a week from Amsterdam to JFK for a few months,” Dr Galvan said. “The aviation industry has set for itself a target – ideally it wants 1 per cent of its fuel to come from renewable sources by 2015 and the UAE could become an important player in this arena in the future.”

The project is expected to complete by mid-2014.

“It should help address food security issues by using seawater for irrigation rather than relying on already-stressed freshwater resources,” Dr Brown said. “It will not have an impact on arable land resources that could be used for conventional agriculture and it may also provide a sustainable biofuel energy which could benefit the aviation industry.”