Fishy Etihad biofuel trial a plus for desert regions

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January 17, 2019
Etihad biofuel slat trial

Scientists at Etihad Airways’ home base of Abu Dhabi have come up with a way of letting the masses eat fish cake and fly with it too.

The Khalifa University of Science and Technology has used biofuel produced from saltwater plants that can be grown in conjunction with seafood farming to power one of Etihad’s Boeing 787s.

READ: United pledges 50 percent greenhouse cut by 2050.

The airline says the flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam was the first in the world to use biofuel made from plants grown with salt water.

The Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) project by the university’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) bodes well for the production of local biofuel and the creation of a new agricultural alternative in the UAE.

Plane-maker Boeing said it could be a game-changer that substantially benefitted global air transport and had significant promise “to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies”.

The SEAS pilot facility has been operating since 2016 and uses salt-tolerant halophyte plants that thrive in desert conditions and do not require fresh water or arable land.

Wastewater from fish grown in the seafood farms is used to fertilize the plants before being diverted into a cultivated mangrove forest.

biofuel salt Etihad
The salt-tolerant Salicornia plant whose seeds were used to produce the biofuel. Photo: Etihad.

This further removes nutrients and provides carbon storage before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is released back into the sea.

The biofuel used in the flight was blended with traditional fuel to power the 787’s GE GEnx-1B engines and was produced from Salicornia plants grown on a two-hectare farm in Masdar City that raised fish and shrimp to provide nutrients.

Other partners in the project included ADNOC Refining, UOP-Honeywell and the Abu Dhabi Vegetable Oil Company.

Scaling up production is the next step and the SBRC is undertaking due-diligence on the development of 200ha facility expected to be built within the next three years along the Abu Dhabi coast.

“This proof of concept is a ground-breaking development that addresses the challenges of energy, water and food security – three elements that are inextricably linked and which form a nexus, meaning that actions in any one area have an impact in the others” Minister of State for Food Security Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mheiri said in the announcement,.

“What is particularly exciting about the SEAS is that it is an initiative that supports multiple platforms; aviation, oil and gas and agriculture.”

Etihad group chief executive Tony Douglas described the proof-of-concept as a significant milestone for the UAE and its key industries.

“Etihad is fully committed to this project which demonstrates a successful proof of concept that is local, viable, cost-effective and sustainable,’’ he said, adding that decarbonization was important across the aviation industry.

About 160,000 passenger flights have flown on a blend of sustainable and traditional jet fuel since the first biofuels were certified for commercial use in 2011 but economically scaling up production to significant levels has remained a problem.

Sustainable aviation fuel represents a significant opportunity to help aviation meet its goals to cap the growth of carbon emissions by 2020 and cut levels to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050.

In the meantime, the industry has agreed to introduce a global carbon offset scheme known as CORSIA.