Research facility to grow seafood and plants for sustainable aviation biofuels begins operations in UAE
Thu 17 Mar 2016 – The Abu Dhabi research facility backed by Etihad Airways, Boeing, GE Aviation, Safran and Honeywell UOP that aims to use desert lands irrigated by seawater to produce both seafood and sustainable jet biofuel has begun operations on a 2-hectare site in Masdar City. The aviation industry companies, along with local oil refiners, have come together as the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) to fund the facility, which is operated by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The facility uses coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food, whose nutrient-rich wastewater then fertilises salt-tolerant halophyte plants rich in oils that can then be harvested for aviation biofuel production. If the technology proves viable at this smaller scale, then further expansion will continue with the aim of scaling up to a 200-hectare demonstration site, says SBRC.
The commercial potential of halophyte plants is relatively unexplored, says Masdar, but thrive in arid, desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land to grow.
“This breakthrough research places the UAE at the centre of a global movement to advance technology that supports the sustainable production of food and bioenergy,” said Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan. “The commercialisation of aviation fuels – cleaner, superior-performing fuels – is a critical step towards balancing our industry’s dependency on fossil fuels, while also incubating innovation that may have profound global implications to address energy, water and food security.”
The UAE imports around 90% of its food and the Masdar project, said UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, “will not only sustainably produce bioenergy, but also offer a pathway to grow our aquaculture industry, which supports food independence.”
Aquaculture – industrial fish or shellfish farming – is one of the world’s fastest expanding food sectors, according to Masdar, with a current growth rate of about 6% a year. However, aquaculture systems can also pose environmental challenges due to the impact of nutrient-rich effluent flowing into the ocean. The SBRC says it is tackling these concerns and in the last step of the system, wastewater is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest, further removing nutrients and providing carbon storage, before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.
“Aquaculture systems are here to stay,” said Dr Kevin Fitzsimmons, professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona. “As the planet’s population approaches 9 billion people, we must advance technologies that enable sustainable and manageable food production. The innovative facility in Abu Dhabi is a showcase of how cross-sector cooperation can lead to breakthrough research with the potential to deliver both food and aviation fuel – and do so in a sustainable, scalable way.”
The new facility, added Marc Allen, President of Boeing International, “shows real promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies.”
The 2-hectare research facility and the formal inauguration attended by UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Dr Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi (photos: Etihad Airways):