Boeing announces (with much hype) new way to turn deserts into biofuel farms.

Energy Post calls it “the BIGGEST BREAKTHROUGH EVER!” That seems a bit much, but it is interesting that a Boeing-sponsored group in Abu Dhabi has figured out how to make super-clean, super-cheap oil from salt-tolerant desert plants:

What researchers at the Masdar Institute have been studying is a category of plants called halophytes. These plants have naturally evolved to be able to live on salt water. Not only that: they are also able to live in arid lands, in deserts. “If you look around you here [in Abu Dhabi], most of the plants you see are halophytes.”

Clearly if it is possible to grow plants in deserts around the world, and use them for biofuels, that would be an ideal solution. It would solve the major problems of traditional biofuels – use of fresh water and arable land – at one stroke. “Twenty per cent of the world’s land is either desert or becoming desert through overuse or mal-use”, [Darrin] Morgan[, Boeing’s Director of Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy,] notes. “And 97% of the world’s water is salt water. So if you can use those two factors that turns the scarcity problem that plagues all biofuels on its head.”

Boeing and its partners Honeywell UOP and Eithad Airways founded a research consortium called the Sustainable Bio-Energy Research Consortium (SBRC) which was invited by the government of Abu Dhabi to set up shop in Masdar City. Since 2009, the researchers at Masdar have studied the possibilities of halophytes. Remarkably, the consortium discovered that not much work had been done on halophytes up to that time. “We started to ask, who is working on this, because there is a lot of biomass potential out there. The science was there. The science said this can be made into biofuels pretty well. But if you looked at the patents, who is doing this, not really anybody. It was a whole new realm that nobody was looking at.”

And the researchers made a very pleasant discovery. It turned out, Morgan says, “that the types of halophytes we are working on are very amenable to being converted into sugars.” This is crucial in terms of the potential the plants have to produce energy cost-effectively, Morgan explains. “Plants contain lignin that keeps them stiff. The cellulose in the plant has to be separated from the lignin to liberate the sugars. Production costs are heavily influenced by how easy or difficult it is to do this. This is the name of the game for next-generation biofuels.”

“What the scientists here have found”, he adds, “is that the halophytic family tends to be low in lignin and high in the right type of sugars, which can be converted into hydrocarbons. These plants tend to liberate these sugars relatively easily, so you need relatively low temperatures in the production process. Nobody knew this. It is a huge discovery that was made here. We found it and repeated it.” This was about six months ago.