By Harry Hutchinson
The Middle East contains one of the cradles of civilization, the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture fed the populations of ancient Sumer and Babylon. But for much of the region it’s a different story. There are vast tracts of desert surrounded by salt water, largely undeveloped places that are unsuitable for growing crops to feed people or livestock. Of course, the wealth of the Middle East doesn’t depend on its soil, but on energy, specifically the world’s largest known reserves of petroleum.
Few people in the Middle East or anywhere else, however, expect that contemporary civilization can go on burning petroleum at current rates forever. Many believe we are harming our environment and ourselves by doing so.
A new study announced a few weeks ago may give the oil-rich Middle East options for a new type of cultivation and also make it the potential provider of a different and renewable source of energy.
Abu Dhabi plans to host the study and to serve as a real-world laboratory to investigate the cultivation of saltwater plants for biofuels. Specifically, the researchers want to learn if Abu Dhabi and other salty, arid places in the world can become practical sources of renewable feedstocks for jet fuel.
The study is being led by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and has been commissioned by UOP LLC and The Boeing Co. The research will try to determine the sustainability of growing two specific saltwater plants, Salicornia bigelovii and saltwater mangroves, and processing them on a large scale into biofuel.
Using saltwater plants, known as halophytes, especially those that grow on non-arable land, avoids competition of biofuel feedstocks with food crops. Seawater and a dry climate make Abu Dhabi a logical location for the project. What’s more, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute, which was formed in cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is part of a national initiative specifically directed at research and development of renewable energy resources.
The organizers say that the halophyte study will evaluate aquaculture management and practices, land use, and energy requirements. They will also seek to identify any potential ecological or social disruption associated with using halophytes for energy development, specifically for aviation biofuel development.
Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies will participate in analysis, which will include an assessment of the total carbon lifecycle of biofuels.
According to a statement issued by Boeing, sustainable biofuel development is a key component of aviation's strategy for lowering carbon emissions. Potential plant sources being considered are only ones that don't distort the global food chain, compete with fresh water resources, or lead to unintended land use change. To verify data gathered during the analysis, the halophyte study will be peer-reviewed by third parties and measured against practices and principles developed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels. The results are expected to be available in late 2010.
UOP and Boeing are affiliates of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, a consortium of more than a dozen airlines supporting research into renewable jet fuels as alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
In addition to this latest project, the two companies have taken part in three demonstration flights testing jet biofuels. One was in December of last year and two this past January. The test flights were designed to use different types of planes and engines.
In December, Air New Zealand made a two-hour test flight using a blend of biofuel and jet fuel in one of four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines on a Boeing 747-400. In early January, a test by Continental Air Lines flew a 737-800 with a bio and conventional fuel mixture in one of its CFM56-7B engines. Later that month, Japan Air Lines tested a 747-300 with a mix of fuels in one Pratt & Whitney JT9D engine.
In each flight the mix was 50-50 biofuel and conventional jet fuel. The biofuel was drawn from a variety sources, including jatropha, camelina, and algae, and the mixture of sources differed on each flight.
UOP, a unit of Honeywell Corp., started its renewable fuels department in 2006 and has developed a hydro treatment process to synthesize fuel from plant oils. In October the company said it would supply biologically based jet fuel to the U.S. Navy and Air Force for tests.
Working with various feedstock partners, UOP will produce up to 190,000 gallons of fuel for the Navy and 400,000 gallons for the Air Force from sustainable, non-food materials including animal fats, algae, and camelina, a plant grown for its oil. The initial fuel will be delivered this year and next to support certification and testing of alternative fuels for U.S. military aircraft.