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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."