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Boeing, UAE partners make progress with oilseed halophytes as feedstock for renewable jet fuel; desert plants fed by seawater

Boeing and research partners in the United Arab Emirates have made breakthroughs in sustainable aviation biofuel development, finding that desert plants fed by seawater (the oilseed-producing halophyte Salicornia bigelovii) can produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks. (Earlier post.) The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, will test these findings in a project that could support biofuel crop production in arid countries, such as the UAE.

S. bigelovii is a leafless, C3, succulent annual salt marsh plant that produces an oilseed on seawater irrigation in coastal desert environments; the oil from the seeds is suitable for biofuel production. Yields on seawater are similar to conventional oilseeds under ideal conditions. SBRC research also found that the entire shrublike plant (i.e., its lignocellulosic biomass as well as the the oil) can be turned into biofuel effectively.

As reported in 2012 by Masdar researchers, while halophytes such as Salicornia bigelovii have the potential to produce biofuel feedstocks such as oils from its seeds and sugars from its biomass, the high salinity of the plant have challenged the existing methods for production of cellulosic biofuels.

Laboratory experiments at Masdar Institute on removing the salt from the plant has led to some interesting findings. The liquid fraction obtained after pretreatment contains 2.6 times more ash than the solid fraction. Preliminary extractives analysis demonstrates that most of the salt can be removed by controlling two factors; firstly time of the initial washing and secondly, salinity of the water being used. The effect of temperature has also been studied during these experiments. By repetitive washing (in Soxhlet apparatus), the ash in the solid fraction is reduced to 6% as compared to the feed which ranges between 16-37 %. Results achieved using strong acid hydrolysis and high performance liquid chromatography analysis confirm 22% glucan, 18% xylan, 16% arabinan, and 13% lignin in the extractives-free biomass. These numbers indicate that S. bigelovii could be a very suitable feedstock for bioenergy processes such as gasification, BIO-SPK, or bio-energy fermentation.

—Chaturvedi et al. (2012)

The Masdar researchers have now published a new paper (Cybulska et al., 2014) in which they report that composition of the washed S. bigelovii biomass was comparable to traditional lignocellulosic biomasses with relatively high glucan and xylan content (26 and 22 g/100 gDM, respectively) but with lower lignin content (7 g/100 gDM).

They subjected the washed feedstock to hydrothermal pretreatment, producing highly digestible (up to 92% glucan-to-glucose conversion) and fermentable (up to 100% glucose-to-ethanol conversion) fiber fractions. Liquid fractions obtained in the pretreatment did not show inhibition towards Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

No significant differences among the enzymatic convertibility and microbial fermentability of the fibers as well as low xylose recoveries suggest that lower severity pretreatment conditions could be exploited for S. bigelovii.

—Chaturvedi et al. (2014)

The ISEAS concept. Click to enlarge.

In the coming year, SBRC scientists will create a test ecosystem (Integrated Saltwater Energy and Agricultural Systems, ISEAS) to support the development and commercialization of biofuel sources for aviation and co-products by planting two crops of halophytes in Abu Dhabi’s sandy soil.

Waste seawater from a fish and shrimp farm will nourish the halophytes that clean the water as they grow. The water will next flow into a field of mangroves before returning to the ocean. Both crops would be converted into aviation biofuel using SBRC research findings.

Plants called halophytes show even more promise than we expected as a source of renewable fuel for jets and other vehicles. The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks, which has potential applications in other parts of the world. This project can have a global impact, since 97 percent of the earth’s water is ocean and 20 percent of the earth’s land is desert.

—Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC

Funded by Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP, the SRBC is dedicated to the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuel, which emits 50 to 80 percent less carbon through its lifecycle compared to fossil fuel.

SBRC’s research success, announced at the World Future Energy Summit, continues the momentum for a sustainable aviation biofuel industry in Abu Dhabi. On 18 January, Etihad Airways conducted a demonstration flight with a 777-300ER (Extended Range) powered in part with biofuel refined in the UAE. On 19 January, Boeing, Etihad Airways, Masdar Institute and others launched BIOjet Abu Dhabi: Flight Path to Sustainability, an initiative to advance biofuel research, feedstock production and refining capability. (Earlier post.)




'Repeated washing' to remove the salt sounds both energy and fresh water expensive.


No matter what i do in this website i cannot find suitable cheap biofuel for my actual car. I live far from desert and sea so they won't do it in my area. Also i don't have an airplane so i don't buy aviation fuel. Maybe if i were living there i can change my engine for a small airplane engine. If ever they make ethanol then my car is not flex fuel. I won't move there even if it were interresting as im poor and cannot buy a house.


The problem with this web-site is not the articles, but the facetious comments that follow. Kudos to UAE for trying to find a future economy after their oil is gone or not wanted.

If your only wish is for cheap fuel for your car, make your own biodiesel or convert your vehicle to run on SVO.

BTW "repeated washings" doesn't have to use unused fresh water for every wash. The first ones would use sea water to reduce the concentration of salt close to sea water levels, the next ones would use the used water from following cycles in a reverse flow like a heat exchanger.


Libya's chief capital project besides the oil is the so-called Man-made River, which is depleting Libya's chief aquifer to sustain a very expensive farm industry. One day that river will run in reverse from the Mediterranean. Now you know why. Aquaculture already requires frequent water changes, particularly for algae management, as algae may be the only food stock allowable for cultivated fish, when our oceans die. No problem with the mangrove fuel concept.


Presumably in your opinion your own comments are an exception to the general facetiousness of them.

I can however see little evidence of their having any exceptionally high standard.

Just how much energy are you going to expend by repeated washing, when biofuel is already very intensive?
You do know that if you wash in only rather less saline solutions, then less salt will be removed so that more washes are needed?

Roger Pham

I see your point, Davemart. Biofuel is already very energy intensive. It would be best to reserve sea-water farming to produce foods instead of biofuels.

Synthetic HC fuels can be produced inorganically from solar and wind energy to produce H2 and then combine the H2 with CO2 extracted out of seawater to produce synthetic HC. This type of organic synthesis will require much less land area for a given amount of fuel than farming, because solar PV panels with up to 20% efficiency is 10-50x more efficient than photosynthesis. The seawater pumped in to provide CO2 for the inorganic fuel productin facility can be recycled by being delivered to seawater farms nearby the inorganic fuel-production facility.

I predict that the demand for HC fuels in the future will be quite low, perhaps only for airplanes and transoceanic ships. Cars and homes and factories can run on electricity, H2, and battery. Airplanes will be useful mainly for transcontinental and intercontinental trips, while electric trains running on RE or nuclear energy electricity will serve much more efficiently and lower cost for regional transportation.

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