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Could This Plant Shake Up the Biofuel Industry?

Could This Plant Shake Up the Biofuel Industry?
Image credit: Jürgen Howaldt

Aircraft giant Boeing may have unearthed the greatest breakthrough in the biofuel industry to date -- one that benefits both the environment and businesses.

A consortium of scientists at the Masdar Research Institute in Abu Dhabi announced yesterday promising studies that have been conducted on shrub-like plants called halophytes. These desert plants can be irrigated with saltwater and can easily be converted into hydrocarbons.

This is critical because the sources for biofuel typically flourish with large amounts of freshwater on arable land -- two resources that are already in diminutive supply.

“Twenty percent of the world’s land is either desert or becoming desert through overuse or mal-use”, Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable aviation fuels and environmental strategy at Boeing, told EnergyPost. “And 97 percent 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.”

Related: The Costs and Benefits of Alternative-Fuel Vehicles

Finding a suitable oil alternative would not only curb environmental damage and address spiking fuel prices, Boeing discovered, but may actually increase engine efficiency for its planes. (Honeywell and Etihad Airways also sponsored the study, comprising a group called the Sustainable Bio-Energy Research Consortium.)

A pilot facility where halophytes are being grown through aquaculture is currently in construction in Abu Dhabi for testing to start next year -- with commercial production possible in as soon as four years, said Morgan, who is a 10-year Boeing veteran.

“While the biofuel is being developed by members of the airline industry,” writes energy website CleanTechnica, “the vision is that it will also be useful for ground transport.”

Related: Why Are These Franchisees Ganging Up Against the Biofuel Industry?

Geoff Weiss is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com.

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