Finding innovative ways of producing sustainable alternative aviation fuel using feedstocks that don’t impact food security and freshwater resources is the ideal future for energy in air transport. In the United Arab Emirates, research is well underway to do just that.

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, supported by Etihad Airways, Boeing and others have come up with an original way of using the country’s desert conditions and proximity to the sea to the advantage of aviation.

In 2011, they established the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, to investigate methods of producing sustainable alternative aviation fuels in the UAE.  In particular, its flagship project is researching a method of producing biofuel from halophytic (saltwater-tolerant) plants by using an integrated seawater energy and agriculture system approach.

This innovative integrated system uses the saline wastewater produced as a byproduct of aquaculture farming to irrigate salt-tolerant plants grown in the coastal desert. The cultivated halophytes – salicornia and mangrove – provide the necessary biological clean-up of the wastewater from the fish and shrimp farming operations, using the nutrients as fertiliser.

The oily seeds of the salicornia and the biomass produced by both halophytic plants will be turned into sustainable jet fuel, chemicals, and biomaterials. In addition the plants are able to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a task which the mangroves are particularly effective at doing, given their extensive root system.

In June 2015, following several years of intensive R&D into the system operations and plant capabilities, the Masdar Institute began construction of a two hectare demonstration project within Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. In time, the partners anticipate that this approach will produce sustainable alternative fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and water pollution, whilst supporting local food production.