Research facility planned to grow biofuel plant

Salicornia bigelovii, commonly known as dwarf glasswort, is a salt-tolerant plant that can be used to make green aviation fuel, which is friendlier to the climate than the conventional kind.

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Plans have been announced for a research centre to test how to efficiently grow a crop that can be turned into eco-friendly fuel.

Salicornia bigelovii, commonly known as dwarf glasswort, is a salt-tolerant plant that can be used to make green aviation fuel, which releases less CO2 when combusted than the conventional kind.

It has been researched at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology since 2009 when a joint-funded consortium was established between Etihad Airways, Boeing and the technology company, Honeywell.

The project has already established the suitability of the plant, which is indigenous to the Americas, for aviation fuel.

Dr Alejandro Rios, director of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, said the challenge now was how to grow large yields of the crop in this country in a sustainable and cost-effective manner.

The team believes this can be achieved through its Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System – a concept in which aquaculture of marine animals is coupled with growing the Salicornia.

The proposed facility will use sea water to raise fish and shrimp in a farm, with the nutrient-rich effluent then being pumped through a field of Salicornia plants. The remaining water would be infused through a mangrove forest, where any remaining nutrients will be absorbed, before being discharged back at sea.

The concept will be tested over three years at a two-hectare pilot area near Masdar City, which is currently being designed.

“We are putting all of our efforts into making sure that this pilot is operational within a year,” said Dr Rios, adding that construction was expected to begin this year.

One immediate issue is access to sea water.

“We are still figuring out how to do that,” he said. “The idea is to have direct access to the sea but we do not know if we are going to be able to do that. In the worst-case scenario, we are going to truck in, for the pilot, the water.”

Fine-tuning irrigation and finding out as much as possible about the movement of water and salt through the system will be key areas of interest for the team.

“Salicornia is usually grown in flood irrigation, so salt deposition is really not a problem, but we need to test it out,” Dr Rios said.

Ultimately, the test site will look at how the concept’s various components interact.

“People have worked in aquaculture, they understand aquaculture very well, people have worked a little bit in cultivating mangroves and in cultivating Salicornia,” he said. “But they have not looked at how the system works and how water flows from the aquaculture down to the Salicornia, how the salt behaves, how it deposits on the soil. All these things we have to understand.”

As previously reported, a 200-hectare site has already been allocated in the Western Region for a commercial-scale operation. Dr Rios believes that next phase of the project can be operational within five years.

The project’s advantages are that the plant uses saline water and that it can be grown in the UAE climate on land that is not suitable for food production.

“The whole idea is no food versus fuel – this is a system that generates food plus fuel – and no indirect land-use changes,” he said. “We are not looking to destroy eco-systems, we are actually looking to create eco-systems via the mangroves that will be planted.”

Julie Felgar, managing director environmental strategy and integration at Boeing, said the company was pleased with the project results so far.

“We are in this for the long haul,” she said.

While aviation accounts for only 2 per cent of global emissions of climate-harming greenhouse gases, the industry is set for significant growth in the coming years, she said.

Biofuels have been identified as an important tool to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint.

Earlier this week, Etihad flew its first trial flight that carried a blend of 10 per cent of biofuel.