The take-off of Abu Dhabi’s aviation biofuel initiative
Dubai - An experiment is unfolding in the desert region of Abu Dhabi to advance the aviation industry’s commitment to sustainable business practices by developing technology with the promise of producing a clean, alternative fuel supply.
The world’s first bio-energy pilot plant is being constructed in Abu Dhabi’s seawater-irrigated “desert land” with the purpose of producing aviation biofuel, food and fertiliser and helping preserve the environment, under the auspices of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST).
The project is led by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a non-profit group set up in 2011 by Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, Boeing and Honeywell UOP. They were later joined by Safran, General Electric and Abu Dhabi oil refining company Takreer.
SBRC Director Alejandro Rios Galvan said the project includes an Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (ISEAS), “which is a closed-loop system that addresses all three points of the water-food-energy nexus”.
“The system starts with aquaculture units that use seawater to raise shrimp and fish. The waste produced by the fish and shrimp then serves as a fertiliser that promotes the growth of a halophyte plant species called Salicornia,” he said.
“The hardy plant, which thrives in deserts, does not require fertile soil and can be irrigated with seawater to produce crops with enough oil and sugar content to be turned into biofuels and biochemicals.
“The remaining nutrients from the agriculture process are then diverted into mangrove forests, which eliminate nutrients and waste from the food production while also playing two other valuable roles in the marine ecosystem as nurseries for young fish and as carbon scrubbers from the atmosphere.”
ISEAS, then, intends to have five positive outcomes, Galvan said.
“It will provide sustainable food in the form of fish and shrimp, produce renewable energy in the form of jet biofuels, bioethanol, biogas and green diesel from oil-rich native plants; is a source of valuable export products in the form of biochemicals and will contribute to a healthier environment in the form of enriched mangroves,” he said.
“Furthermore, it will do all of this without taking away from the country’s limited stock of freshwater resources or farmland.”
Initial research effort to produce biofuel was undertaken in the United States by the University of Arizona in the 1970s and into the 1990s. It was not a concentrated effort and ended due to lack of resources.
Studies have shown that sustainably produced aviation biofuel reduces carbon emissions by 50-80% through its lifecycle. More than 1,600 flights in the United States and Europe by more than 20 airlines, including Etihad Airlines, have used sustainable aviation biofuel blended with conventional petroleum fuel on commercial flights since renewable jet fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.
James Hogan, president and chief executive officer of Etihad Airways, said the company “has a crucial role in helping Abu Dhabi diversify its economy”.
“One way we will achieve this is by supporting the development of sustainable, carbon-neutral and commercially viable aviation fuels. This pilot project will help clarify this system as a viable option for the future,” Hogan said in a release at the launch of the plant’s construction in June.
The announcement of the pilot plant was made in January 2015 during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the Middle East’s largest gathering of international leaders in the field, hosted by Masdar, to address the interconnected challenges of energy and water security, climate risk and sustainable development.
According to Masdar officials, the programme is highly relevant to Abu Dhabi, given its location with easy access to seawater and a climate conducive to saline agriculture. They are confident that the “path breaking” project would have implications for not only the UAE and similar arid coastline regions around the world, but also for the aviation sector’s goal of reducing carbon emissions.
The project also ties in with Masdar Institute’s goal to become a world-class, research-driven, graduate-level university, focusing on advanced energy and sustainable technologies.
According to Galvan, the goal of the project is to demonstrate that an integrated bioenergy process is a commercially viable and sustainable system with respect to essential food and fuel production, suitable land use, reduced carbon emissions and wastewater cleanup.
“The idea is to operate the pilot plant for at least three years to understand the different variables at play,” he said. “The next step will be to scale it up from the present pilot facility to a demo scale facility and then to commercial scale operations around ten years from now.”
In his address at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Masdar CEO Ahmad Belhoul stressed that “bioenergy research will continue to be a key area of focus for Masdar and will help to position the UAE as one that incubates and exports knowledge”.
When one considers that about 20% of the world’s land is desert and 97% of the world’s water is salt water, this approach may overcome a land and water resource scarcity problem by creating a bioenergy solution applicable in countries across the globe.