Contract awarded for UAE pilot project that will use desert plants and seawater to produce jet biofuel
Salicornia, a genus of halophytes, thrive in arid desert conditions (photo: SBRC)
Wed 21 Jan 2015 – A consortium of aviation, biofuel and research interests have awarded a contract to construct the world’s first bioenergy pilot project that will use desert land and seawater to produce sustainable aviation fuel in the United Arab Emirates. The project, which is expected to be operational by late summer, is based on research carried out at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology into using coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilises oil-rich halophyte plants that can be harvested for aviation biofuel production. The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) was founded by Masdar, Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP, and later joined by aerospace companies Safran and GE.
Masdar CEO Dr Ahmad Belhoul said the research had enormous implications for producing food and fuel in water and arable land constrained regions. “Considering that about 20% of the world’s land is desert and 97% of the world’s water is salt water, this approach turns a land and water resource scarcity problem on its head by creating a bioenergy solution applicable in countries around the globe.”
Halophyte plants thrive in arid desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land to grow. After the fertilisation process, the effluent is passed through cultivated mangroves before being discharged back into the sea, further removing nutrients and providing valuable carbon storage (see graphic below).
According to the SBRC, the goal of the pilot project, which has been awarded to Abu Dhabi-based International Mechanical & Electrical Co (IMECO) and to be built at Masdar City, is to demonstrate the integrated bioenergy process as a commercially viable and sustainable system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater clean-up.
“The work thus far has primarily been laboratory based, with some small scale growing of salicornia from collected seeds,” explained Linden Coppell, Head of Sustainability at Etihad Airways.
“This is a big step – actually replicating the entire Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (ISEAS) in ‘pilot’ scale – with all the elements of the system allowing us, for example, to manipulate it with varying salt and nutrient levels. This will allow us to more confidently scale up to the 200-hectare site we have assigned in a couple of years.”
Added the airline’s CEO, James Hogan: “This project is a great example of the public-private collaborations Etihad believes are essential to stimulating innovation and driving real change within the transportation industry.”
It was also hailed by Barbara Bramble, Chair of the international standards body Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). “The Masdar Institute research is truly game-changing for large-scale biofuel production,” she said. “This project puts the UAE at the forefront of a global movement to create sustainable alternative fuels that support – not compete with – food production and fresh water conservation.”
The awarding of the contract was announced during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which focuses on energy and water security, climate risk and sustainable development, and is hosted by Masdar. The event also includes the World Future Energy Summit and the International Water Summit.
“Masdar Institute is in pursuit of solutions to the water-food-energy nexus, which is being taken to the next level through this contract,” said Masdar Institute President Dr Fred Moavenzadeh. “We would like to thank the UAE leadership for their continuing support to address the country’s needs for sustainable food, fuel and water security through such efforts. Collaborative undertakings like the one we are engaged with through the SBRC will enhance our ability to sustainably meet the UAE’s growing needs.”