Etihad operates first commercial flight to use sustainable aviation fuel produced from saltwater tolerant plants
Etihad's Amsterdam flight was the first to use fuel derived from halophyte plants (photo: Khalifa University)
Tue 22 Jan 2019 – Etihad Airways has operated the world’s first commercial flight to use jet fuel derived from plants grown in saltwater. The fuel was produced by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) established by Masdar Institute, which operates a pilot facility in Abu Dhabi cultivating salt-tolerant halophyte plants that thrive in desert conditions and do not need fresh water or arable land to grow. The initiative is also intended to address food security in the UAE through the farming of seafood as a core element in the process. Masdar Institute is part of Khalifa University, and other members of SBRC include Boeing, ADNOC, Safran, GE and Bauer Resources, as well as Etihad. The consortium expects to expand the facility to commercial-scale over the next few years. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam was operated by a Boeing 787 powered by GE’s GEnx-1B engines.
The research and demonstration project was first established nine years ago by founding partners Boeing, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP (see article). Operations then began in March 2016 at a 2-hectare site in Masdar City to grow seafood and halophyte plants for sustainable aviation fuels (see article). Since then, the SBRC partners have been collaborating on a comprehensive value chain centred around the Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS). They claim it is the world’s first desert ecosystem designed to produce fuel and food in saltwater.
Fish and shrimp raised at the facility provide nutrients for the plants as well as contribute to local food production. After wastewater from the fish fertilises the plants, it is diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest. This further removes nutrients and provides carbon storage before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.
Dr Arif Sultan Al Hammadi, EVP at Khalifa University of Science and Technology said the project was a landmark achievement and as well as creating a sustainable aviation fuel value chain, it was also supporting UAE strategic objectives in the energy and food sectors. He added: “We believe the use of biofuel for this commercial flight will make a compelling statement that impacts stakeholders in the aviation, energy and transportation sectors.
“As a leading research institution in the region focused on providing cutting edge technologies in clean energy, Masdar Institute at Khalifa University remains committed to continuing with its mandate to produce biofuel, clean energy and sustainable technologies for reducing carbon emissions, as well as water and environment-related research.”
Etihad Group CEO Tony Douglas said the project had demonstrated a successful proof of concept that was local, viable, cost-effective and sustainable. He added: “Decarbonisation is important across the aviation industry and together with our partners, Etihad is proud to be at the forefront of this pioneering new research.”
Refining of the seed oil to meet jet fuel standards, blending and delivery of the biofuel to the aircraft for the flight was carried out by ADNOC Refining. Honeywell UOP’s Ecofining technology was used in the refining process, with Abu Dhabi Vegetable Oil Company providing assistance in the pre-treatment phases.
“Etihad’s flight proves SEAS is a game-changer that can substantially benefit air transport and the world. The research and technology being developed shows significant promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies,” said Sean Schwinn, VP Strategy and Market Development for Boeing International.
Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, stated the UAE’s leadership was strongly committed to positioning the country as a global hub for innovation and sustainability. “In this context, productive cross-disciplinary public-private partnerships are crucial to fuelling research and development efforts and creating game changing innovations that enable a more sustainable future,” he said.
“Deep decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries has a ripple effect on food security and climate action. Clean, alternative aviation fuels are an innovative and sustainable solution to significantly reducing harmful carbon emissions. The UAE is proud to be a pioneer in this domain.”
Commented Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Harab Al Mheiri, Minister of State for Food Security: “What is particularly exciting about the SEAS is that it is an initiative that supports multiple platforms: aviation, oil and gas, and agriculture. It is an important specialised initiative under the aquaculture umbrella, with the UAE recognising that this sector represents one of the best uses of what is the region’s most precious resources and has consequently established its aquaculture sector with an investment of more than AED 100 million ($27m) to develop hatcheries and fish farms.”
The SBRC expects that over the course of the next few years, the system will scale up to 200 hectares in a move towards full-scale implementation.