Desert plants to be put to the test for aviation biofuel production


January 23, 2014

The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)

The Salicornia is one species of halophyte that is a promising feedstock for biofuel production (Photo: SBRC)

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Whenever the topic of plant-derived biofuels is raised, the issue of turning valuable arable land over to the task of growing feedstock is generally not far behind. A discovery by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SRBC) that desert plants fed by seawater can produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks could help alleviate such concerns.

The SRBC, which is affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, is receiving funding from Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP to develop and commercialize a sustainable biofuel that emits 50 to 80 percent less carbon through its lifecycle than fossil fuels. Plants called halophytes, which are highly salt tolerant, could be the answer.

SRBC researchers found that halophyte seeds contain oil suitable for biofuel production and that the entire shrub-like plant can be turned into biofuel more effectively than many other feedstocks.

To test their findings, the SRBC team will create a test ecosystem over the coming year that will see two crops of halophytes planted in the sandy soil found in Abu Dhabi. The test site will use waste seawater from a fish and shrimp farm to nourish the plants, with the water then flowing into a field of mangroves before being returned to the ocean.

"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," says Dr. Alejandro Rios, Director of the SBRC. "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."

Source: Masdar Institute

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

I think that is totally cool and very green. It would be neat to 'grow' ones own fuel.


Interesting plant, Salicornia. You can eat it as Marsh Samphire or St Pierre in France. One of its common names was 'glasswort' as it was once burned in large quantities to produce soda lime used in glass manufacture.


Each time they will irrigate with salty sea water, the evaporation is going to increase salt concentration in the soil, slowly transforming soil into a solid crust of solid salt desert, where nothing grow. Remember that the mangrove mention in the article, never encounter water more salty than sea water, and many time with a mix of fresh water from land. But with that contraption, they will receive a mix of highly salty water, that seawater will dissolve somewhat in seawater. Mangrove is probably not tolerant enough to survive in this harsh condition on long term. Where the freshwater mention in the article is coming from in the first place? From desalting plan that use oil to operate? Humm. . .


This is the kind of development that is not accounted for by those predicting the future of global warming, the unexpected development of a new source for energy that has the potential to be a game changer. (Compare to corn, clearly one of the stupidest sources for biofuel ever). Now, if we can only make the change quickly enough to photovoltaic, new batteries, green biofuels, and fracking geothermal!


Would the mangroves be destroyed to produce biomass as in #6? Does the salinity of the water increase? Is the shrimp and fish operation done without dangerous chemicals, hormones, GE shrimp and fish?


very difficult to grow even with plenty salt water

Luis Serralha

Sounds good but how much energy will go INTO producing enough fuel to be worth the effort? It may take more energy and time than just staying with normal fuels.

Jason Unwin

Oil is cheap there (UAE). Why are they trying to find an alternative to oil? If they show us how to replace oil with biofuels, their economy would crash.

Don Duncan

I am pleased to see this concept being moved forward, although less pleased to see that no mention is being made of where it originated: The Seawater Foundation. This was started as a way to sequester carbon in sandy coastal regions of the world by a man named Carl Hodges (who had his start in the early 1960's working on the original papers warning of possible global warming due to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere). Additionally, it was the Seawater Foundation which worked with Boeing to get approval for the use of salicornia-based fuels in their planes. Seawater Foundation started two pilot plants in Eritrea and Baja California to explore the practicality of these concepts.

I have to assume that Dr. Rios was involved in the Baja project and has now moved it to Abu Dhabi...I hope with Dr. Hodges' good wishes.


I think this is interesting, but the annual production would never compare to algae production. The only advantage I can see to this setup is that it is easier to keep the saltwater constantly circulating rather than merely dumping it into an open vat. Constant circulation would combat the salinity increase from evaporation.

Keeping the water covered would prevent evaporation from becoming a problem as the evaporation would return to the tank.

An interesting question: would the run off be sufficiently higher salinity to operate a saline "battery" like this one:


Brickandfanal, after reading your post, I am reminded of a book titled, Sea Salt Agriculture by Dr. Maynard Murray, who did his research back in 1950's and 'fertilized' with ocean water. The results he experienced were, in a nutshell, extraordinary! Prior to doing any experiments fertilizing various grasslands and crops, he tested tankers full of ocean water delivered to him from each & every ocean body of water in the world. What he discovered was that every element in ocean water was perfectly in balance no matter which ocean it came from. He compared the ocean water to human blood, i.e., the ocean is always flowing and the 'elements(electrolytes)' are always perfectly balanced just as the blood of man is always flowing and the electrolytes are always balanced OR death results. I personally have experimented with different types of salt and have found that 'if' the salt is dehydrated from ocean water and not refined or bleached/extracted/adulterated in any form or fashion, then any plant I fertilize with thrives & flourishes. However, on the other hand, white table salt kills the plant when I 'fertilize' with it. Just FYI here.


Each of the various concerns have a degree of merit but the it is the larger issue that the is more important element. No one single way of generating energy is all important but rather each in it's own way and where each is practical. Additionally, attention should also be directed at using municipal sewage as an input where that can be made practical. The value of fuel produced does not matter as much as cleanly disposing of municipal sewage matters. The carbon expressed when burning such fuels effectively is irrelevant because that CO2 is then consumed somewhere by growing plants or algae, etc.


Bio fuel hybrid airplanes is the only way to fly. Air travel can become cheaper than driving a car. Fly when the whether is nice, be on time and enjoy many things you cannot when you fly commercial. However - if you like the aggravations that come with commercial flights, then go for it!

By the time our new hybrid plane hits the market - the bio fuel should be there.


@ Don Duncan The wily sheiks that run the UAE have ridiculous amounts of money and because they knew that the oil will eventually run out they invested well. The UAE gets over half of their income from sources other than oil production. Some of these wily sheiks even seem to care about their people a little. This project will also create food.


Using desert for productive activity is great but as with all standard agriculture when you increase the amount of evaporation that happens in the world you increase the amount of Rainfall that happens in the world (Flooding) also water retains heat in the atmosphere IE global warming.

If Fuel is competing with Food simply chose a Plant or method that provides them both Like Industrial Hemp 30% oil when pressed from the seed and you get flour to feed humans or animals you also get fiber for clothing, rope, and composite panel manufacture.


Interesting that the conversion ratio (area land to quantity of fuel) was not disclosed. Seems like that would be an important factor in estimating the usefulness of this research.


Nothing new here!

I discovered similar plants back in the late 1990s with the added bonus of feed for stock in arrid areas like outback Australia and developing nations with poor soil conditions.

Oh well tomorrow is another day, another discovery.

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