Growing Altitude: Creating Jet Biofuel From Saltwater Tolerant Plants

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Are you hopping on a plane soon for holiday travel? Your trip may be powered – in part – by plants. Here’s the scoop:

Air travel is growing.  You’ll have lots of company on your trip, and not just because of the season. Air travel is growing overall as global incomes rise and more people want to see the world.

According to the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, “Airlines will need nearly 36,000 new airplanes … in the coming decades. Today, about 19,000 airplanes fly globally, but that fleet will almost double within 20 years.”

Greenhouse gas emissions grow too, unless alternatives are found. Alas, air travel contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and those are likely to get worse fast. One part of the solution is for airlines to use biofuels for jets instead of fossil fuels. Biofuels are “renewable fuels derived from biological materials that can be regenerated.” Historically, biofuels have come from  crops like soy or corn. This has created tensions around whether food crops should be used for fuel in world where, according to the UN, more than 800 million people go hungry.

Salicornia (Robin Baranowski, NPS Photo)

Image courtesy of National Park Service (Robin Baranowski, NPS Photo)

But there’s good news. One of the newer biofuel alternatives uses saltwater tolerant plants – called halophytes – to produce an oil that can be refined into jet fuel. This year at the SXSW Eco conference, Alejandro Rios Galvan, director the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium at the Masdar Institute,spoke about cultivating Salicornia, a halophyte whose seeds contain 30 percent oil.  This plant can be irrigated with seawater and used as biofuel feedstock .

Refining capacity needs to grow. It’s still expensive to refine because there is little refining capacity right now. But this plant is not a major food crop and it can grow in wildly diverse places including North America, Europe and Asia. So if pilot projects succeed, refining capacity will likely expand. According to Boeing, the aviation industry wants “one percent of its annual aviation fuel use come from biofuel sources by 2015. … That’s equivalent to about 600 billion gallons of fuel – and would likely need up to five production facilities.”

Another win-win for sustainable business. In a world of rising sea levels, the ability to grow a renewable jet fuel feedstock in increasingly salty conditions seems like a real win-win. It means that desert coastal areas that are currently not farmed could be. And the biofuels created would reduce airplane emissions. That helps to preserve the natural wonders that all those tourists are traveling to see.

So let’s hear it for halophytes! And Happy Holidays!

Feature image courtesy of xlibber

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Alison Lueders

Alison Lueders is the Founder and Principal of Great Green Content - a green business certified by both Green America and the Green Business Bureau. She offers copywriting and content marketing services to businesses that are “going green.”Convinced that business can play a powerful and positive role in building a greener, more sustainable economy, she launched Great Green Content in 2011.