Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell’s UOP have signed up with an Abu Dhabi government investment vehicle to develop green jet fuel from “pickle weed”.
The plan is for an initial 20-hectare site on the coast of the Emirate where sea water will be used to farm shellfish, which in turn will provide fertiliser to grow Salicornia – or pickle weed - which can be harvested.
The oil from the Salicornia seeds can then be refined to produce biofuel, while the left over seed meal can be used for animal feed, and the straw burned to make electricity. From the pickle weed meadows, the saltwater will flow on to feed mangrove forests to sequester further carbon. The process will also produce fresh water.
The seawater farming concept has been tested in Eritrea and Mexico, but the five-year project led by Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi’s clean technology post-graduate research body will scale it up and look for commercial applications.
“We want to be as aggressive as we can in moving from a pilot scale,” John Perkins, provost at Masdar Institute, said. “We hope that in three to five years we will begin to see commercial exploitation of this technology.”
Biofuels are at a very early stage of development. Hydrocarbon-rich Gulf states like Abu Dhabi hope that sponsoring early-stage development of biofuels will fill the gap when the oil runs out. And the airline industry is pushing hard to shed its image as the enemy of the climate, including an International Air Transport Association target to reach carbon neutral growth by 2020. But the technology is at an early stage and demonstrators exist only on a tiny scale compared with potential global demand.
One of the biggest issues is the amount of land required to grow the feedstocks, and being sure not to steal land away from food cultivation. Abu Dhabi’s pickle weed project will be built on entirely arid land, with little or no biodiversity and no fresh water. “When you look at land use and compare it with petroleum then it can be so scary it becomes a cause of inaction,” said Jennifer Holmgren, a vice president at Honeywell’s OUP, a supplier to the refinery industry. “But we are looking at regional solutions, relevant for the local environment, and we are using land that is not in use today.”
The development agreement between Boeing and Abu Dhabi comes just a week after a similar biofuels research programme was launched between rival Airbus and nearby Qatar.