Etihad Airways - World premiere with biofuel from saltwater plantation

A world first – the first passenger flight using biofuel from a saltwater plantation

Jennifer Weitbrecht
18.01.2019
2 pictures
5 minutes

On 16th January 2018, an Etihad Airways Dreamliner made the trip from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam using an unusual fuel: biofuel from an oil-rich, salt-tolerant plant.

Biofuel from the desert

According to a report by Boeing, the flight was the first in the world to use biofuel from a salicornia saltwater plantation – and then to do so on a seven-hour long-haul flight. Although Etihad is not the first airline to use alternative fuels, this was the first flight that a UAE-based airline used an alternative fuel grown and manufactured in its own country.

The new biofuel was created from the unusually frugal salicornia plant, a type of succulent. The major advantage of using this plant is that none of the country’s already scarce fresh water resources are used in its cultivation. The salt-tolerant, oil-rich succulent grows in the sandy earth of a two-hectare saltwater plantation in the coastal desert, namely the Seawater Energy and Agricultural System (SEAS) in Masdar, near Abu Dhabi.

In order to create this new type of biofuel, the plant is harvested and the oil it contains is pressed, purified and refined. As it is, however, not currently possible to fly a plane using 100 percent biofuel, the plant oil must be mixed with conventional jet fuel.

Unusually high percentage of biofuel

According to reports, both of the Etihad Airways Boeing 787’s GE GEnx-1B engines were powered by the biofuel, with a mixture of 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent conventional jet fuel being used on this flight. If this information is correct, this would be an unusually high percentage. It is unlikely to be more, as international fuel specification groups have currently set an upper limit on the percentage of biofuel that can be used. For safety reasons, aviation fuel may currently comprise no more than 50 percent biofuel.

While several other flights have previously been carried out using alternative fuels, they used smaller ratios. Below are a few examples:

The Masdar Institute research project

The research project is the brainchild of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, an offshoot of Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University. The Institute founded the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a non-profit organisation aimed at developing and supporting new technologies and approaches for generating sustainable bioenergy and creating links between agriculture and seawater usage. The consortium is supported by multiple partners, including Etihad Airways, Boeing, ADNOC Refining, Safran, General Electric and BAUER Resources.

When it comes to synthesising and blending biofuels, higher costs tend to be a limiting factor for companies. This is where a holistic concept could open up potential new opportunities. The salicornia plantation pilot project currently uses around two hectares of land. According to Etihad, SBRC plans to expand this to 200 hectares over the next few years in order to facilitate commercialisation.

Significance for aviation and the environment

The benefits of biofuel (including its cultivation and production processes) include:

Various quotes on the SBRC research project

Sean Schwinn, Vice President of Strategy and Market Development, Boeing International

Tony Douglas, CEO of the Etihad Aviation Group

Dr Arif Sultan Al Hammadi, Executive Vice President of Khalifa University

Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment 

The goal: carbon dioxide reduction

According to a press release issued by Etihad Airways, the use of salicornia biofuels has considerably reduced carbon dioxide emissions over the lifecycle compared to fossil fuels. It is important to realise that, although biofuels also produce carbon dioxide during combustion, this is balanced out by the carbon dioxide consumed by the plants during their growth.

Test flights using biofuels have been made since 2011, with around 160,000 passengers being transported using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and alternative fuels. By 2020, the aviation industry aims to halt the increase of carbon dioxide emissions and to reduce the remaining emissions to 50 percent of their 2005 level by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, especially bearing in mind that air travel is predicted to increase by 100 percent by 2050.

Here is Etihad’s video on the new fuel:

Would you like to learn more about alternative fuels? We previously published this article on biofuels.

This brochure contains accessible, interesting facts and information on sustainable aviation fuels.

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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