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Fuel for Thought

The prevailing discourse about energy is particularly interesting to me as an example of the politics of scarcity. The conventional wisdom (based on rampant misinformation) is that we are running out of energy, which is why we need to fight expensive and terrible wars for oil, pollute our air and water, build costly pipelines to bring tar sands and shale oil to market, drill offshore, ramp up the use of coal, etc.

This is so obviously insane. We are actually bathing in energy, including wind energy, solar energy, hydro energy, tidal energy, and many others. Our oldest form of fuel is burning wood, which means that energy literally grows on trees!

We spend far more money propping up our arcane petroleum industry than researching more sustainable alternatives to it.

Which is why it is nice to see reports coming out of non-oil companies taking matters into their own hands and coming up with promising solutions. For example, here’s a report about research funded by Boeing and an airline. Why are Boeing and airlines funding fuel research? Because as the cost of aircraft fuel goes up and up and the quality of the fuel goes down, that’s a big problem for them.

So here is the good part. They researched using common plants called halophytes to produce biofuels, and made some amazing discoveries. The reason they picked halophytes is because they are plants that have adapted to grow in deserts using salt water, so they don’t use up valuable agricultural land or scarce fresh water (unlike corn ethanol). But the spectacular thing they discovered is that halophytes are actually far easier to turn into biofuels than other plants, so they will be dramatically easier and cheaper to process. This is because halophytes are lower in lignin — the part that makes plants stiff, and which must be separated out before the plant sugars can be turned into fuels (the same thing that keeps us from eating wood for food). And even better, the resulting fuels are actually higher quality than fuels made from crude oil.

They are building a two-hectare pilot production facility in Abu Dhabi right now. And even cooler, they will be using the waste outflow from aquaculture (the farming of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic plants). The problem with aquaculture activities is that they produce sea water containing large amounts of fertilizers, which causes algal blooms and other serious problems. Instead, they will be using this waste water to grow halophytes, which significantly reduces the fertilizer levels, reducing pollution. Wow, energy production from waste pollution!

Win, win, win, win. As the researchers put it, this has the potential to be “the big gamechanger for biofuels”. And not just for aviation, but for all fuels. And remember that biofuels are carbon neutral, since plants remove carbon from the air.

But there is an added ironic part. Go read the comments on the article, where you will see a bunch of trolls desperately trying to cast doubt on this development.

My favorite comment is:

Snag is mass conversion of large deserts to greenery will almost affect climate and could well cause some sort of devastation somewhere else.

Ignoring this person’s weak grasp of language, right now we are creating new deserts like crazy. Converting some of those deserts back into green areas is a good idea, and will not “almost affect climate”.



  1. il-08 wrote:

    Why in Abu Dhabi? Government sponsored? Oil funded government subsidizing research in oil-replacing technology. Something sounds a little fishy (at least mollusky) about this, and it may be that I am just so used to a completely dis-functional government that I immediately get suspicious when a government acts with forethought and insight.

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  2. Hassan wrote:

    IL-08, may be because Abu Dhabi is desert and it is quite easier to exploit cheap labor of Asia over there

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  3. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Great post IK – and as i read they project to obtain 10k gallons of fuel per acre vs 6000 for ethanol.

    IL-08 Good question with some surprising answers. Besides the below excerpt from wiki, it could have to also do with the proximity of the desert lands to salt water among other environmental conditions. But, I think equally it is the foresight of the UAE to diversify its economy and not be so dependent on oil alone.

    Recently the government has been diversifying their economic plans. Served by high oil prices, the country’s non-oil and gas GDP has outstripped that attributable to the energy sector. Remarkably, non-oil and gas GDP now constitutes 64% of the UAE’s total GDP. It has taken on an active diversification and liberalisation programme to reduce the UAE’s reliance on the hydrocarbon sector. This idea of diversification of the economy is also seen in the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030[42] planned by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. In this plan Abu Dhabi’s economy will be sustainable and not be dependent on any one facet or source of revenue. More specifically the non-oil portion of income is planned to be increased from about 40% to about 60%.

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  4. Don wrote:

    There has also been promising work done with algae here in the US. The Navy, too, is working to develop biofuels to replace petroleum based fuels.

    I totally agree with you, IK – we’re surrounded by energy. Short carbon cycle and no carbon energy.

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    I didn’t say this research was government sponsored. As I said, it is funded by Boeing, an airline (and Honeywell, who have aerospace and energy interests). The UAE is actually a very cosmopolitan and advanced country, so it is no surprise that there are research institutes there. I have friends who have lived and worked in Abu Dhabi. Would you be so suspicious if the research was being done somewhere in the US or Europe?

    Besides, as PSgt points out, they have a lot of desert and salt water! And they are smart enough to diversify their economy.

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Hassan wrote:

    I have lived 3 years in UAE, it is very advanced in many ways, no doubt about it, and they are very open to foreign companies and businesses. I think some big American company (Halliburton??) moved their headquarters there as well.

    Plus as I said, labor exploitation is very easy there.

    Friday, January 31, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink