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imgres-4Saltwater makes up 97 percent of the world’s water and 20 percent of earth’s land mass is arid or desert regions.

Combine the two and create a new kind of biofuel that will be sustainable and cut carbon emissions, said Alejandro Rios Galvan, director the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.

The institute is focusing on cultivating halophytes, desert plants that can be irrigated with seawater and used as biofuel feedstock to create jet fuel.

In particular, it’s growing Salicornia, a green succulent that produces seeds containing 30 percent oil, which can be refined and used as an alternative to jet fuel, Galvan said.

“We’re going to produce biomass for alternative energy in a sustainable way,” Galvan said. “We’re not feeding into the food versus fuel debate.”

IMG_4028Galvan spoke with Julie Felgar, Boeing Commercial Airlines’ managing director of environment strategy, in an afternoon keynote address at South by Southwest Eco, which kicked off Monday at the Austin Convention Center. SXSW Eco is produced in conjunction with Austin Energy and the Austin Technology Incubator. It runs through Wednesday.

Felgar and Rios discussed the development of sustainable jet fuel and the effort to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent in coming decades.

“Aviation is expanding around the globe,” Felgar said.

In 1993, 73 percent of all air traffic came from North America and Europe. That has fallen to 50 percent in 2013. And that’s because Asia is booming.

Airlines will need nearly 36,000 new airplanes valued at $5.2 trillion in the coming decades, Felgar said.

Today, about 19,000 airplanes fly globally, but that fleet will almost double within 20 years, Felgar said.

“It comes with some potentially troubling environmental impact if we don’t act now,” she said.

Salicornia, photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Salicornia, photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The airline industry contributes 2 percent globally to the world’s carbon emissions, Felgar said. That will grow to 3 percent by 2030, she said. It will not grow more because Boeing and other aircraft makers are creating lighter and more efficient airplanes and they are increasingly focusing on using biofuels to power their aircraft, Felgar said.

By 2020, the aviation industry wants to be carbon neutral and by 2050, it seeks to reduce emissions by 50 percent, Felgar said.

Boeing wants to expand biofuel supply to 1 percent of jet fuel demand by 2015, Felgar said.

“The problem is supply,” she said. “The refining capacity is very small right now.”

And it’s expensive. It used to cost $30 a gallon for jet biofuel and that’s dropped substantially, but it’s still expensive, she said.

Today, many feedstocks will provide biofuel including oils and biomass, plant sugars and other sources like algae and municipal solid waste.

The move to jet biofuel has to be a global movement, Felgar said.

“We can’t just do this in the U.S.,” she said.

That’s where the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates comes in. It’s launching a pilot project to cultivate and produce biofuel from Salicornia, Galvan said. And if that test is successful, it will look at commercialization.