Salt-Loving, Water-Sipping Plants: Future of Jet Fuel?

Salicornia_bigeloviiCan a plant that grows on arid land and sips salt water be a solution for the growing environmental impact of air travel? That’s what Boeing (s BA), Honeywell’s (s hon) UOP, the Masdar Institute and Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies are wondering. The group said this morning that it plans to study the use of halophytes, or plants that can grow in salty areas, as feedstock for bio-jet fuel.

Halophytes have been investigated as a third-generation form of biofuels before because the plants don’t compete with food crops for arable land and fresh water (they can grow in oversalinized agricultural land, coastal deserts and other salty areas where few food crops can thrive) and can have a high oil content. Salicornia bigelovii, for example (pictured), which the Boeing-Masdar group plans to study, has about 30 percent oil — making it a potentially rich feedstock for fuel.

The government-backed Masdar Institute, based in the United Arab Emirates’ sunbaked, seaside capital Abu Dhabi will lead the study, and hopes to eventually grow halophytes locally for fuel production at commercial scale. Importantly, the research announced today and set to deliver results late next year will look at the environmental impact of these plants for fuel production over the total life cycle — from land cultivation through to use in aviation.

The new project fits into a larger, multibillion-dollar effort by the Abu Dhabi government to develop alternative energy technologies and create a “carbon-neutral, zero-waste” city as a launchpad for cleantech development. With the number of commercial aircraft fleets expected to almost double to 32,000 by 2025, the carbon emissions due to air travel are set to jump to 3 percent of the world’s total emissions by 2050, up from from 2 percent today.

As Wired has noted, a study published in the journal Science late last year found “salt-loving crops could be used to produce 1.5 billion barrels of ethanol annually on a swath of new agricultural land almost five times the size of Texas.” So with regulations coming into place that will likely make those emissions increasingly expensive, growing the key ingredients for a lower-emission fuel could be very big business.