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Abu Dhabi institute aiming to produce aviation fuel from plants

Scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology have acquired 200 hectares of coastal land in the Western Region to set up a demonstration farm with aims to start producing sustainable jet fuel from plants.

The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System Project plans to be 100% sustainable once operational, using aquaculture to eventually produce biofuels.

The AED64.2 million (€12.6 million)-venture involves pumping seawater to an aquaculture farm where fish and shrimp are grown. The wastewater from these ponds will then be used to irrigate fields of salt-tolerant plants, such as salicornia and local halophytes. From there, the water will drain from the fields into mangroves that will be used as biomass.

Preliminary results are said to have been interesting so far.

'The next step will be to analyse the results to see which populations performed best,' Dr Jonathan Jed Brown, project director, says. 'That means which produced the most seed or the most biomass.'

Masdar plans to plant mangroves on the land as early as next year. But it will take at least five years for the system to be fully functional.

The aim is also to produce biofuels for the aviation industry.

'Salicornia produces long, finger-type vegetables that inside contain small seeds,' he adds. 'They have high oil content. Once you crush them you get vegetable oil that can be refined into biosynthetic kerosene, which is commercial fuel for aviation.'

So far, he says, Etihad Airways has used the fuel as a one-off experiment on one of their cargo planes from Seattle to Abu Dhabi.

'It should help address food security issues by using seawater for irrigation rather than relying on already-stressed freshwater resources,' Dr Brown says. 'It will not have an impact on arable land resources that could be used for conventional agriculture and it may also provide a sustainable biofuel energy which could benefit the aviation industry.'

The project is expected to complete by mid-2014.