Halophytes: Growing food and biofuel in coastal desert regions

Originally published at johnbrianshannon.com
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

What could be better than creating rich cropland out of the world’s desert regions?

It’s a tempting idea. Some 33% of the world’s landmass is covered with desert landscape and 40,000 miles of coastlines are adjoining deserts. Nothing but ocean, sun, and sand. But in those hostile regions, some prototype halophyte farming projects have scored significant successes.

NASA - Earth with Global Deserts
Looking for a place to grow Halophytes? Coastal desert regions are your best bet. NASA – Earth with Global Deserts

Halophytes for human food, for livestock feed, and for biofuel production

Whether halophyte crops are grown for food (the ‘tenders’ or ‘leaves’ of the plant have a light nutty and salty taste) or to feed livestock (the stalks) or for biofuel production, growing these crops along coastal regions restores plant life to desert areas adjoining the ocean.

Exclusive report – Boeing reveals “the biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever” (Energy Post EU)

A land plan that grows halopyhtes food for humans/livestock feed and for biofuel production will produce the best economic result

“Integrating those two systems you get sustainable aquaculture that does not pollute the oceans and biomass that can be used for fuels” — Darrin L. Morgan

As a bonus in poverty-stricken lands, dried halophytes (branches/roots) can serve as an infinitely cleaner cookstove fuel than what is presently used in such areas — which is often dried livestock dung or expensive kerosene.

Halophytes are those crops which are salt-tolerant and can survive the blistering heat of the world’s deserts. Many of the crops we presently grow have salt-resistant cousins — all they need is trenches or pipelines to deliver the water inland from the sea.

Halophytes negate the need to remove the high salt content of ocean water which in itself, is a very costly proposition with desalination plants costing millions of dollars.

‘Plants called halophytes show even more promise than we expected.’ Image courtesy of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.
‘Plants called halophytes show even more promise than we expected.’ Image courtesy of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) affiliated with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.

As halophyte farms become established they improve the growing conditions for non-halophyte plants

Most deserts are sand, which means all that is required to begin creating usable farmland is startup funding, farm machinery, a field plan and seeds, and of course, plenty of farm labourers.

Creating Wealth out of Sand and Seawater

Some of the poorest places on the planet are also ‘rich’ in deserts and are located near plentiful salt water resources, making them suitable candidates for halophyte farming. Economic benefits for poor countries are stable growth, lower unemployment, better balance-of-trade and less reliance on foreign food aid programmes.

If you can grow your own food at low cost, why buy it from other countries?

Halophytes Greening Eritrea Part I (Martin Sheen narrates the early days of Eritrea’s very successful halophyte farming and inland seafood production)

Halophytes Greening Eritrea Part II

Seawater irrigation agriculture projects for deserts (completely rainless regions)

2012 Yuma, Arizona Salicornia planting

Sahara Forest Project: From vision to reality

University of Phoenix Seawater Farming Overview

Growing Potatoes using Saltwater Farming Techniques in the Netherlands

Other successful examples exist in other coastal regions around the world

Helping to mitigate global sea level rises due to climate change, creating powerful economic zones out of desert, seawater and labour, lowering unemployment in poverty-stricken nations, removing carbon from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil, all while dramatically increasing crop and seafood production are all benefits of growing halophytes in coastal desert regions of the world.

Stage I Coastal Desert transformation

The first 25,000 miles of coastal desert out of a grand total of 40,000 miles of coastal desert globally can be converted to this kind of farming simply by showing up and using existing simple technologies/cultivation methods and seed varieties.

Stage II Coastal Desert transformation

The other 15,000 miles of coastal desert regions could be viewed as Stage II of this process after the best candidate areas become fully cultivated, as these secondary regions may require more capital investment for conversion due to their somewhat more inland locations.

Huge opportunity awaits early investors in this rediscovered agricultural market. Cheap land, free ocean water, low cost seeds and local labour, and a reputation as businesspeople who can solve local problems add value and employment to poverty-stricken regions, and lead growing nations forward, look promising for seawater/halophyte farming owner/operators and investors.

Further Reading

Biofuel Breakthrough! Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director

by Zachary Shahan

Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing
Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing

On the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week* European energy journalist Karel Beckman, university biologist Joanne Manaster, and I got to have a conversation with a member of Boeing leadership who has been working on what seems to be a genuine breakthrough in the biofuel arena, and in the energy arena in general. There are a few very exciting things about the development, and some super interesting side notes, so take your time and be sure to read this piece carefully!

I’ve summarized all the key points in text below, but also included at the bottom of this article is an audio recording of the entire conversation we had with Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing. Thanks to Karel for kindly sharing that, and thanks to Darrin for allowing us to record him.

Biofuels Backstory

First of all, let me say that I have hardly covered biofuels in the past couple of years because I more or less gave up on them as a genuinely sustainable and cost-competitive near-term solution to our climate, pollution, and resource scarcity crises. Algae biofuels look like they won’t be cost competitive until the mid to late 2020s at the earliest, if ever. Meanwhile, cellulosic biofuels seem to have many of the same critical drawbacks as first-generation biofuels.

Two of the biggest drawbacks of conventional (1st-generation) and cellulosic biofuels are that they require a tremendous amount of freshwater and arable land for their production. These resources are basic necessities of human life. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply for over a billion people.

The new biofuel Boeing and partners have developed skirts those issues completely. But I’ll get back to that after another interesting backstory, one I was not aware of.

Oil Problems… Including Problems For Airliners

While the biofuel backstory is pretty well-known, some important parts of the oil backstory are new to me, and surely many or all of you. We all know that burning oil for energy is a leading cause of globe warming, that oil security issues and wars are a major harm to society, and that oil resource scarcity and price spikes are also a continuous threat to society. All of these issues alone would have companies like Boeing looking for a sustainable, cost-competitive fuel alternative. But something else also has Boeing looking for an alternative to petroleum — the quality of today’s oil supply.

Unconventional oil production from tar sands and shale oil have boosted US and global oil production just as conventional oil fields have have been running dry. However, a variety of chemicals are used in these more complicated and dirtier production processes. Boeing and other air transport companies have found that the chemicals in these unconventional oils cause problems for their engines. They reduce efficiency and lead to other complications. You might think that Boeing and its colleagues in the airline industry could convince oil companies to work on solutions to these problems, but according to Darrin (who I’ll remind you is the director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing), in the grand scheme of things, airline companies aren’t a big enough portion of oil companies’ business in order to get that attention.

So, along with the typical concerns that come from burning oil, Boeing has been looking for a sustainable solution that will also perform better. Interestingly, counter to the early hype, Darrin noted that biofuels actually burn very cleanly and would be preferred over petroleum from a performance perspective.

Naturally, oil companies have not been big supporters of a switch to biofuels. Boeing and others in the air transport industry, however, eventually decided that they wanted to research ways that they could genuinely move beyond oil. As a result, in 2008, they created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. That seems to have been the seed of the biofuel breakthrough discussed below.

Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Boeing’s Biofuel Breakthrough

In recent years, Boeing has “happened across” a new type of biofuel, a biofuel with some amazing natural benefits. First of all, the biofuel comes from a type of plant — halophytes — that can grow in the desert, not taking up valuable arable land. Furthermore, these halophytes can be irrigated with saltwater, again solving one of the main downsides of conventional biofuels — their tremendous freshwater needs. For these reasons and others, it seems that halophyte biofuels can be produced at a low, competitive cost.

Notably, this big discovery wasn’t made purely by accident. Several years ago, when Boeing decided that it wanted to find a better fuel source than oil or conventional biofuels, it aimed to find a fuel that was genuinely sustainable. It didn’t want to run into the problems with powerful stakeholders or the environment that corn ethanol ran into. Sustainability was the focus all the way down to design. When Boeing ran across the possibility of creating biofuel from these unique halophytes, back in 2009, it found that there were actually no patents related to such a process (globally). Can you imagine the feeling? Boeing then started the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi, partnering with Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, and Honeywell’s UOP to work on researching the biofuel’s potential.

News has gotten even better since then, in a couple of ways:

1) Aquaculture has been growing worldwide as a solution to rapidly declining fish stocks in open waters. However, aquaculture comes with at least one big problem — it produces a tremendous waste stream. Interestingly, halophytes, can actually use aquaculture waste as a feedstock.

2) A key process in creating biofuel from cellulosic plants is separating the lignin from the sugars (the sugars are what get converted into fuel). About six months ago, Boeing and crew (corny pun intended) discovered that this process was actually much easier with halophytes than it was with other cellulosic plants used for biofuel.

Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Next Steps

Science is all fun and games, of course, but the real question is: what’s the cost? Can this halophyte biofuel play in the big leagues? The expectation is that it really can, and within just 4-5 years.

A pilot facility (a couple hectares in size) is being built in Abu Dhabi for testing that will start in 2015. That testing is supposed to go on for about 2 years, but if all goes well, a larger facility (500 hectares in size) could go up before that first test period is finished — in 1–3 years. Optimistically, commercial production (thousands and thousands of hectares) would start soon after — perhaps 4–5 years from now, according to Darrin.

Just to clarify, I asked if this biofuel would be cost-competitive at that time. Indeed, that is the expectation.

Biggest Biofuel Breakthrough To Date?

Darrin’s concluding remark in our short time together seems on the money to me: “This, to me, is the biggest breakthrough that there is out there.” (In biofuels, that is.)

By the way, while the biofuel is being developed by members of the airline industry, the vision is that it will also be useful for ground transport.

Stay tuned — I’m soon going to dig into this story a bit more in a video interview with Darrin. If you have any questions you want me to ask at that time, drop them in the comments below!

Also recommended:

Boeing Discovers Promising Biofuel At $3 Per Gallon

Biofuel from Desert Plants Set to Clean Up Aviation

New Initiative To Grow Jet Biofuel Supply Chain In UAE; Focus On Research, Feedstock Production And Refining Capability

Image Credits: Masdar Institute

*Full disclosure: Masdar covered my trip to Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Keep up to date with my coverage from throughout the week on our Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week channel. Never miss a cleantech beat by subscribing to our overall cleantech newsletter.

This article, Boeing Biofuel Breakthrough — This Is A BIG Deal (Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director), is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Zachary ShahanZachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.

Boeing develops commerically viable ‘green diesel’ biofuel

Originally published on Reviving Gaia by Roy L Hales

Biofuel research in Boeing laboratory. Image Credit: Boeing.
Biofuel research in Boeing laboratory. Image by Boeing.

Boeing has identified a commercially viable “green diesel” that emits 50% less carbon dioxide than conventional fossil fuels.

It is made from oils and fats that are chemically similar to today’s aviation biofuel and, with US government incentives, costs about $3 a gallon.  That makes it competitive with petroleum jet fuel.

Were it not for the prohibitive cost, many airlines would already have been using renewable fuels.

Boeing has been a leader in this field since 2011, when a 747–8F flew to the Paris Airshow burning a B15 (15% biofuel) mix from camelina.

Together with 27 other airlines in the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, Boeing has been trying to develop a biofuel that is produced sustainably, without adverse impact to greenhouse gas emissions, local food security, soil, water and air.

“Green diesel approval would be a major breakthrough in the availability of competitively priced, sustainable aviation fuel,” said Dr. James Kinder, a Technical Fellow in Boeing Commercial Airplanes Propulsion Systems Division.

“We are collaborating with our industry partners and the aviation community to move this innovative solution forward and reduce the industry’s reliance on fossil fuel.”

Significant green diesel production capacity already exists in the U.S., Europe and Singapore that could supply as much as 1 percent – about 600 million gallons – of global commercial jet fuel demand. Diamond Green Diesel and Dynamic Fuels, have facilities in Louisiana. Neste Oil, based in Finland, has large green diesel refineries in Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Singapore.

Boeing, the F.A.A., engine manufacturers, green diesel producers and others are now compiling a detailed research report that will be submitted to key stakeholders in the fuel approvals process.

“Boeing wants to establish new pathways for sustainable jet fuel, and this green diesel initiative is a groundbreaking step in that long journey,” said Julie Felgar, managing director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Environmental Strategy and Integration.

“To support our customers, industry and communities, Boeing will continue to look for opportunities to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint.”

The company is working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other stakeholders to gain approval for aircraft to fly on green diesel.  If approved, the fuel could be blended directly with traditional jet fuel.

This article, Boeing Discovers Promising Biofuel At $3 Per Gallon, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.