Plant fuel test for jets nears take-off

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is moving ahead with plans to cultivate a plant that will produce eco-friendly biofuel for jets.

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ABU DHABI // Scientists at the capital's clean-energy research facility are two months away from testing a sustainable fuel made from plants that they hope will eventually be used to power jet aircraft.

Working in partnership with Boeing, Etihad Airways and the technology company Honeywell, the scientists from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology hope to carry out a test in Al Gharbia.

Researchers are also looking for a company that can manage the test site where salicornia bigelovii - a salt-tolerant plant that holds big promise for the biofuels industry - can be cultivated in October.

"We are very close to identifying the land where the pilot farm will be located," said Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, the assistant professor at the Masdar Institute. "We are tendering the contract for the final design of the pilot farm and supervision of the construction."

Biofuels are considered carbon-neutral because theplants from which they are produced assimilate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as they grow, compensating for the greenhouse gases that are released as the fuel is burnt. However, some biofuels have been criticised because they have pushed aside food crops, and in some cases are grown in an unsustainable manner.

The fact that the Masdar project utilises a salt-tolerant crop that is not used to feed people and can be raised in marginal lands with little fresh water is what attracted Boeing to the project, said Darrin Morgan, the director of sustainable biofuel strategy at Boeing.

"We are developing the basics of a new agriculture system," he said. "If you can do it here, you can do it in less extreme environments."

Already, 10 airlines operate commercial flights using biofuels, Mr Morgan said. Biofuel is obtained from crops such as jatropha, semolina and sugar cane, as well as from waste cooking oil. It is mixed with fossil-based fuel and blends of up to 50 per cent are allowed.

Mr Morgan said interest in biofuels would continue to increase, especially in developing countries that lack conventional energy resources.

"It is not a question of whether biofuels are going to happen," he said. "They are going to happen. The question is how."

Commonly known as dwarf glasswort, salicornia bigelovii is native to the coast of the United States and other parts of the Americas. What attracted the Masdar scientists to it is the high amount of oil in its seeds that can be used to produce jet fuel.

The farm is expected to be 200 hectares at full scale, said Dr Sgouridis. But in the first year, only two hectares will be planted. The first crop is expected in April 2013.

Masdar tested the plant's ability to grow locally last year at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai. "We collected seeds from a few varieties from Texas and we tested the fields at different salinities," Dr Sgouridis said. "We got pretty good results."

On average, the plants produced between 3 and 5.5 kilograms of biomass per square metre. Other experiments described in scientific literature showed yields of 2 to 3kg per square metre, he said.

Scientists are looking for microorganisms living in the area that can efficiently decompose the salicornia. This process can be engineered to produce biogas once the seeds have been harvested. A member of the team, Dr Jed Brown, will also examine local salt-tolerant plants for their potential use in biofuels.

The trial farm will be working alongside a fish farm. It will use the water outflow from the farm to irrigate the salicornia crops. The salicornia farm will act as a filter for effluent from the aquaculture facilities. The effluent will also reduce the farm's need for fertiliser by about 70 per cent, said Dr Sgouridis.