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Seawater-Fed Desert Plants may soon be the Biofuel for our Airplanes

The global aviation industry produced over 680 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012, accounting for 12% of total CO2 emissions for all transport sources. To reduce the aviation industry’s global carbon footprint, industry heavyweight Boeing is working with partners in the Middle East on a new biofuel made from desert plants that are fed with seawater.

Called halophytes, these salt-water tolerant, shrub-like plants produce fuel more efficiently than other crops due to their cellular structure (halophytes account for only 2% of plant species, all others are glycophytes). Halophytes contain low levels of lignin (a chemical which binds plant cells together) making it easier to process the plants for fuel.

The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (which includes Boeing, Ethihad Airways, Honeywell and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi) will plant 2 hectares of the halophytes in the region’s sandy soil and will feed the plants waste water from a shrimp and fish farm.

Using halophytes as biofuel instead of glycophytes other plants has many benefits. Halophytes have the potential to produce biofuel that emits 50 to 80 percent less carbon than fossil fuels, they do not compete for land with food crops and thus drive up food prices, and they help clean salt water before it is returned to the sea.

The Consortium has made progress conducting clinical trials with halophytes and will now move to field trials this year. The 3-year pilot program will test if halophytes can be grown with waste seawater on arid soil unsuitable for food crops and if the plants can be efficiently converted into biofuel.

Sam Sunmonu

Sam is a technology entrepreneur and enthusiast. Sam studied History while at Duke University and currently works for a NYC startup.

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