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First harvest of Salicornia marks critical milestone for SEAS project

United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Masdar Institute of Science and Technology’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) – a non-profit entity supported by Etihad Airways, Boeing, Takreer, Safran and General Electric – have announced that its flagship project, the Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS), has reached a critical milestone in its development of sustainable aviation biofuels through the first harvest of the biofuel feedstock.

The first batch of Salicornia at the SEAS facility in Masdar City is picked for harvesting (photo courtesy Masdar Institute).

The harvesting of the first crop of oil-rich plants grown in the desert using seawater brings the United Arab Emirates (UAE) closer to fueling aircraft with locally-produced biofuel. Dr Alejandro Rios G., Director of the SBRC, led a team of Masdar Institute, part of the Khalifa University of Science and Technology, researchers in harvesting the first crop of the biofuel feedstock Salicornia, which is a local salt-tolerant and oil-rich plant.

In achieving this key milestone, the SBRC is closer to establishing a truly sustainable model for aviation fuel production using only our local resources. The success of the SEAS pilot facility, and the collaborative research effort that has supported it exemplifies our commitment to providing sustainable solutions to the UAE’s food security and energy needs, said Dr Steve Griffiths, Interim Executive Vice President for Research, Khalifa University of Science and Technology.

The harvesting took place at a two-hectare SEAS pilot facility in Masdar City, where seafood and sustainable biomass are being cultivated using saltwater and desert land to contribute to the UAE’s sustainable food and fuel security.

Alternative sustainable fuels are a key facet in ensuring the future of aviation. This milestone, leading to our first flight on a truly sustainable homegrown biofuel, is a reflection of the commitment not just of our airline and the SBRC partners but of Abu Dhabi, said Peter Baumgartner, Chief Executive Officer, Etihad Airways.

Harvesting the Salicornia is the first in a series of steps before the oil collected from its seeds is ready to be refined. The steps include drying and grinding the plants, winnowing out the seeds, extracting the oil from the seeds by pressing, and finally cleansing the oil to remove any impurities.

In February 2018 the clean Salicornia oil is to be processed at the Takreer Research Center for conversion into aviation biofuel. Once the process is complete, the biofuel will be mixed at low concentration with regular jet fuel to power a flight by Etihad Airways on a Boeing aircraft.

With this new great achievement, the SBRC demonstrates its commitment to the development of a sustainable biofuel industry in the UAE. In TAKREER, and throughout the entire ADNOC Group, we are transforming how we identify, develop and deploy technology to increase profitability and productivity. In line with this, TAKREER, from the beginning of the project, looked forward to this step as the Salicornia oil obtained from this harvest will be the feedstock that will be processed in the research center, to produce the first ever biojet fuel 100% made in UAE. With this new fundamental step, the dream to produce biofuel from the desert and the sea is now becoming a reality and will allow us to achieve the expected future jet fuel specification, said Dr Mikael Berthod, Vice President, TAKREER Research.

Food and fuel

The SEAS pilot facility has six aquaculture units that use seawater to raise fish and shrimp. The fish farm produces a nutrient-rich effluent, which is directed into the halophyte fields where it fertilizes the oil-rich Salicornia plants. The leftover effluent from the process is then diverted into the cultivated mangrove forests, which further purify the water and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere while sheltering fish nurseries that live around their underwater roots.

This is another critical step in achieving our joint ambition of developing sustainable aviation biofuel. As Abu Dhabi takes ambitious steps in this direction, the SEAS facility is showing solid results that will help make our collective future more secure, said Bernard Dunn, President, Boeing Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.

Food security is a challenge for desert regions, especially as populations rise. Close to 70 percent of the UAE’s seafood is currently imported, and SBRC’s integrated system, with extensive aquaculture as a key element, will not only support the need for aviation biofuels but also support growing food demand in a sustainable way.

The collaborative nature of the SBRC has been key to our success and will continue to be instrumental in overcoming future challenges of scalability. With engagement across all points of the supply chain spectrum, from R&D to refinery and use, we look forward to establishing the UAE’s aviation biofuel industry and promoting cleaner skies, said Dr Rios.

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