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Green Gold: Growing Jet Fuel in the Desert

“In today’s world, air travel is a necessity. As the aviation industry grows, so does its carbon footprint. Airlines, plane manufacturers, and fuel producers alike, are looking for ways to make air travel sustainable and renewable,” says Hendrik Johannes Visser, a microbiologist at Masdar Institute and a lead researcher in the SBRC’s jet-biofuel project.

While creating a biofuel powerful enough for a jet is tricky but possible, ensuring that it’s also sustainable and commercially viable is particularly challenging.

“First generation biofuels — derived directly from crops like corn or soya bean — tend to be at the centre of the food versus fuel debate, and so for us, are not really sustainable,” explains Visser. “Their high freezing point means they also aren’t good for airliners flying at over 30,000 feet. We’re working on creating a biofuel that can meet the aviation industry’s needs: a sustainable biofuel — an advanced biofuel.”

An aviation biofuel

Advanced biofuels are different from first generation biofuels in that they can be derived from non-food crops — opening countless biofuel options.

“Advanced biofuels use lignocellulosic feedstocks like farm and forest residues, grasses, trees, and algae. They have high yields and grow on land poorly suited for food crops,” says Francisco Boshell, a renewable energy analyst at IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre.

IRENA sees substantial potential to expand both food and biofuel supplies globally, in a sustainable manner, by utilising pathways that do not compete with food production. A recent IRENA report analysed the promising future developments of advanced liquid biofuels, and forecasts its increased competiveness in the transport sector.

“Advanced biofuels can typically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 95% compared to fossil fuels,” says Boshell.

For the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium /SBRC’s jet fuel project, that organic source is a plant that can be grown in the desert heat with just sea water: Salicornia bigelovii. Learn more from IRENA newspage. Follow IRENA's statistics and infographics with data here.