Salty Plants for Clean Skies

Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates airline, has taken one decisive step closer to “green flight”. For the first time, one of the carrier’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners flew using a brand new biofuel extracted from oil-rich saltwater plants. The first flight was from the airline’s home base of Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam.
The plant is called Salicornia, and has been cultivated since March 2016 on a small pilot plantation of just two hectares by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), an institute of the Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. Biofuel is extracted from it, although for use in aircraft it must still be mixed with normal kerosene. One of its great advantages is that, according to Etihad Airways, no modifications to the aircraft, airport tanking systems or engines (model: GEnx-1B by General Electric) were necessary for the maiden flight.
The oilseed plant is considered very low maintenance – it grows in large saltwater tanks directly on the sandy soil of the desert, and does not need freshwater or other valuable farmland to grow. After harvesting, the oil is pressed, purified and refined. The plant’s cultivation is part of a fully ecological chain established by Khalifa University. Fish and crabs are also bred here in seawater plantations for food supplies, and their excretions act as fertilizer for the Salicornia plants. The water from the tanks is then conducted through mangrove forests where it is filtered naturally before it flows back into the sea. The project is running at the university under the name Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS).

“As the leading research facility in the region, we are committed to the production of biofuels, clean energy and sustainable technologies to reduce CO2 emissions.”

DR ARIF SULTAN AL HAMMADIE, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF KHALIFA UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

“This groundbreaking research marks the beginning of the use of clean fuel for the aviation industry, created via a sustainable production chain,” says Dr Arif Sultan Al Hammadie, Executive Vice President at Khalifa University. “This makes us an important contributor to a project that supports the strategic aims of the United Arab Emirates in the fields of energy and nutrition.”

Al Hammadie announced that, following the success of the maiden flight, the plantation will be expanded to 200 hectares as part of the next phase of the research, in order to increase the yield of biofuel.

For Sean Schwinn, Vice President of Strategy and Market Development at aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the Etihad flight is “a milestone that will be of substantial benefit to aviation and the world.” The new technology will help to transform coastal deserts into new, productive farmland and could support both food security and clean air.

The use of eco-friendly kerosene alternatives is, however, nothing new. As early as 2011, the German Lufthansa Group was carrying out pioneering work. As part of the “BurnFAIR – potential for alternative fuels in operational use” project, it was the first airline worldwide to test biofuels in regular operation for six months. At the time, however, only one engine was partly powered with biofuels.

By using eco-friendly fuel, the aviation industry aims to put an end to the increase in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, and by 2050, reduce them to half of the level in 2005.

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos by Boeing, Etihad Airways, Khalifa University