Researchers grow plants in the desert to produce jet fuel

The salicornia’s tolernace for salt is so high that it can even be grown in salt water. Photo: Marco SchmidtThe salicornia’s tolernace for salt is so high that it can even be grown in salt water.
Photo: Marco Schmidt

Plants are capable of doing a wide variety of things, including cleaning up TNT, but their ability to produce renewable jet fuel in the desert seems a little far-fetched.

Nevertheless, earlier this week the world’s first research facility opened that grows both food and fuel in the desert while using salt water for irrigation.

It sounds counterintuitive to build a facility that is designed to grow plants in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, but it utilizes the resources surrounding it.

“Seawater and sand, which most people consider a weakness when investigating bio-energy, turn out to be our strengths,” Dr. Alejandro Rios, director of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) at Masdar Institute, told

The reason why those two resources become strengths in this situation is due to the salicornia plant, which is a halophyte, meaning it can tolerate growing in salt water. Salicornia thrives in arid, desert conditions and the oils contained in its seeds can be turned into jet fuel.

“I like to call it a ‘super plant,’” said Mohamed Al Ghailani, a student at Masdar Institute. “There is so much potential and there is so much that we can do with it, and that gives me the motivation to keep going.”

The facility is two hectares, or about 5 acres, and also has an on-site aquaculture farm that will grow shrimp and fish. Aside from producing food, the aquaculture will also provide the salicornia plant with nutrient-rich wastewater.

The project is called Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) and is funded by SBRC. The group is committed to reducing the aviation industry’s carbon emissions. SBRC was founded by Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP.

“This breakthrough research places Abu Dhabi at the center of a global movement to advance technology that supports the sustainable production of food and bioenergy,” said James Hogan, CEO of Etihad Airways. “The commercialization of aviation fuels – cleaner, superior-performing fuels – is a critical step toward balancing our industry’s dependency on fossil fuels, while also incubating innovation that may have profound global implications to address energy, water and food security.”

Since renewable jet fuel was approved in 2011, more than 2,000 commercial flights have used aviation biofuel combined with petroleum.

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