Boeing’s SBRC Makes Biofuel from Agricultural Rejects

A decade ago, biofuels were considered the Holy Grail of combustion-engine fuels.

Measurably cleaner than fossil fuels, they were the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, at least according to some clean energy experts.

Fast forward to 2008, when the biofuel industry’s withdrawal of food crops such as corn, rice, wheat and palm oil caused a world-wide food crisis that affected almost everyone, but the poor most of all. Prices jumped from 102 percent (for rice) to 204 percent (for corn). Food riots spread from Haiti to Bangladesh, and from sub-Saharan Africa to Egypt.

Closer to home, but no less desperate, the most impoverished residents of Mexico and South America were reduced to eating nothing but corn tortillas, since the cost of the cornmeal precluded also buying vegetables on the little money they could scrape together at the end of the day.

It was Darrin Morgan who said, “Corn ethanol is a perfect example of how not  to do things.”

Morgan, who is the Seattle, Washington-based Director of Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at The Boeing Company, is refreshingly blunt. Sometimes that directness seems the only way to reach people bombarded by the deluge of 21st century information sources.

And Morgan’s news is exhilarating: Boeing’s research consortium (Boeing, Honeywell UOP and Eithad Airways; known jointly as the Sustainable Bio-Energy Research Consortium (SBRC) at the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology in Abu Dhabi has found a class of plants that can grow in the desert, on salt water.

These plants, known as halophytes (or xerohalophytes), have been adapted by Nature over thousands of years to survive harsh growing conditions, notably saline water and desert soils. These halophytes are also nearly indifferent to high temperatures and water shortages, making them ideal for the purpose.

Nature also, and perhaps unintentionally, made these halophytes low in the lignites that make plants grow upright and bind their structure. This means that it takes much less energy to extract the highly useful sugars that go into making of superior biofuels – a discovery that seems to be a first, since no one else appears to have patented the process.

The final step of the equation, notes the SBRC, is incorporating aquaculture; the raising of plants and fish in a cooperative, water-based environment. This final stage provides a perfect complement to halophytes, which thrive on fish wastes comprised of the very ingredients found in chemical fertilizers. The entire pilot project fits on a two-hectare plot within the Masdar City limits, and bears the name “integrated seawater energy and agriculture system”, or ISEAS.

Is it sustainable?

“Yes!” says Jessica Kowal, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Environment Communications representative. “In fact, that sustainability awareness is what a colleague of mine called ‘the triple bottom line; economic, social, and environmental.”

Kowal also reminds me that Boeing has other partners around the globe, most recently with South African Airways, or SAA, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), an enterprise which aims to help small landowners enter the biofuels marketplace.

But Boeing does not follow in the path of some other multinational monopolies like Monsanto, which requires that farmers grow a single, genetically modified and licensed crop.

“What we are seeing is that, in some cases, there may be opportunities to develop new biofuel crops. That is, to add a crop to a farmer’s itinerary.  It’s not an either/or scenario, it’s an ‘and’.” Kowal notes, adding that Boeing and its partners are very much committed to the idea that this initiative has to be productive on many levels, including the environment, in countries where they roll it out.

The fact that the initiative relies on two resources that are considered worthless in most locations – salt water and desert soil – is a big plus. The addition of fish or shrimp, as in aquaculture, is clearly a value-added proposition. The fact that Boeing’s consortium is also looking at a newer and even more energy-efficient fuel conversion technique puts the initiative well over the top. That both the FERC (United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and the UAE, or United Arab Emirates, are offering their leadership is, in Kowal’s words, “very exciting!”

“The aviation industry has been looking at biofuels for a long time, and there is a real desire to find an alternative to petroleum.”

Welcome to the real Holy Grail. And for those who cite the aviation industry as being highly pollutive, Kowal is quick to note that it accounts for only about two percent of transportation industry emissions according to a 2013 fact sheet from the IATA, or the International Air Transport Association.

It’s hard to imagine, but in the not-too-distant future major airlines may operate in a very real near-zero-emissions framework, without having to buy into carbon credits or ecosystem “fixes”.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

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