The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) has marked the frst harvest of a salt-tolerant, oil-rich, biofuel feedstock capable of being grown in the desert and irrigated with seawater.

The plant, which is known as Salicornia, is being grown at a two-hectare pilot facility for the SBRC’s Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) project, which is working to cultivate seafood and sustainable biomass using nothing but saltwater and desert sand.

The harvesting of the crop is the first in a series of steps, including the drying and grinding of the plants and the winnowing of the seeds, before the oil can be collected from its seeds through pressing, ready to be cleaned of impurities and refined.

Dr Steve Griffiths, interim executive VP for Research, Khalifa University of Science and Technology, said: “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.”

The first commercial trial of the oil will be as an admixture for jet fuel. In February 2018, the refined biofuel will be mixed at low concentration with regular jet fuel at the Takreer Research Centre to power a flight by Etihad Airways on a Boeing aircraft.

Bernard Dunn, president of Boeing Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, said: “This is a critical step in 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.”

The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) is a non-profit entity supported by Etihad Airways, Boeing, Takreer, Safran and General Electric.

The SBRC’s flagship SEAS research is being led by Dr Alejandro Rios, director of the SBRC, who noted: “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.”

The SEAS pilot facility also has six aquaculture units that use seawater to raise fish and shrimp while producing a nutrient-rich effluent as a by-product that can then be directed into the fields where it fertilises the oil-rich Salicornia plants.

The leftover effluent from the process is then diverted into cultivated mangrove forests, which purify the water and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while sheltering fish nurseries that live around their underwater roots.

Close to 70% of the UAE’s seafood is currently imported, and SBRC’s integrated aquaculture and biofuel production system has the secondary goal of delivering sustainable and secure food supply.