Abu Dhabi Salt Plains Could Help Fuel Aircrafts


ABU DHABI - JAN 18: An innovative biofuels project unveiled on the eve of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi could lead to commercial aircraft being powered not by aviation fuel as we know it but by a fuel containing a product derived from the seeds of a humble plant that thrives on the emirate’s salt plains.

Details of the potential starring role in the battle against climate change of the salt-loving plant salicornia, also known as pickleweed, sea asparagus and glasswort, emerged at a press conference yesterday. It was one of a series of announcements expected throughout Future Energy Week.

Yesterday also saw the first meeting in Abu Dhabi of the International Renewable Energy Agency, Irena, which last year chose the capital city as its headquarters over competition from Europe.

“Collectively we stand at a historical threshold in the lifespan of Irena,” said Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in a speech to the Irena delegates yesterday.

“This journey to create an agency of substance and of meaningful impact is a truly special one that will culminate with issues of renewable energy and climate change taking their rightful place on the centre stage of global affairs.”

At the press conference, the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute and three industry partners revealed details of a pilot study of the world’s first scheme to link biofuel production to fish farms and mangrove propagation.

Such innovative projects are at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s determination not only to diversify its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels, but also to establish itself as a world centre for the generation of sustainable solutions to the global energy crisis.

The initiative is designed to develop a sustainable regional approach to biofuels, after ill-conceived earlier ventures pushed up food prices, suppressed biodiversity and encouraged deforestation.

“We will create the world’s first integrated biorefinery,” said Dr Jennifer Holmgren, the vice president and general manager of UOP, an Illinois-based unit of Honeywell that provides advanced materials and services to both petroleum refiners and biofuels producers.

“This is quite unique in terms of biofuel production.”

The Masdar Institute’s other partners in the project are the US aerospace company Boeing, and Etihad Airways, providing a strong clue that jet aircraft could one day be fuelled by pickleweed.

The International Air Transport Association has set targets to cut carbon emissions from the aviation industry by 1.5 per cent annually over the next 10 years and by 2050 to reduce them to half the level they were in 2005. To achieve that, said Paul Kinscherff, the president of Boeing Middle East, major airlines expect to start switching to new commercial fuel formulations containing biofuels within the next three to five years.

The innovative five-year project, to be located on Abu Dhabi salt flats, will integrate a system of aquaculture ponds raising fish and shrimp with meadows of salicornia and coastal mangrove swamps.

Salicornia, a salty, crunchy-stemmed salad herb also called sea asparagus, pickleweed and glasswort, has oily seeds that can be harvested and processed to yield fuels resembling the petrol and diesel refined from crude oil. It can grow on land irrigated by saltwater canals, although it requires extra nutrients for commercially viable yields.

In place of chemical fertilisers, organic nutrients would come from the aquaculture pools. Runoff from the meadows would fertilise coastal mangroves, nourishing a habitat important as a nursery for marine life.

Unlike cars, which can be designed to run on electricity from renewable energy sources, commercial aircraft will continue to need liquid fuel for decades, experts predict, and biofuels present the aviation industry’s best hope of reducing its carbon footprint. In theory, they can be nearly carbon-neutral, as carbon emissions from burning the fuels are offset by the carbon dioxide the fuel crops absorb from the atmosphere as they grow.

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Government’s clean-energy company, is sponsoring the four-day summit, which was scheduled to begin today at the Abu Dhabi Exhibition Centre and continue for the rest of the week. The Masdar Institute, which provides postgraduate-degree training in advanced energy fields, is one of the multifaceted company’s initiatives.

More than 20,000 delegates from 130 countries, including 98 official delegations led by royalty, heads of state, prime ministers and energy ministers and 1,400 chief executives, are attending.


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