Oil companies watch out. Biofuels are on the verge of a breakthrough that will transform the oil market. Not only that: it will also green the planet. In an exclusive interview with CleanTechnica.com and Energy Post, Darrin L. Morgan, Director Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at Boeing, reveals that researchers at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, funded by Boeing, Honeywell and Etihad Airways, may have achieved “the biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever”. Alarmed by the poor quality of fuel made from shale oil and tar sands and frustrated by the blunt refusal of oil companies to provide fuel of better quality, Boeing and its partners have over the past four years sponsored research into alternative fuels that has led to spectacular results. They found that there is a class of plants that can grow in deserts on salt water and has superb biomass potential. “Nobody knew this”, says Morgan. “It is a huge discovery. A game-changer for the biofuels market.” Karel Beckman has the story.
We are sitting on a shaded patio in Masdar City – the famous sustainable living project in Abu Dhabi – with a small group of people and listening to what seems a truly sensational story. It is Wednesday 22 January, we are in the middle of Abu Dhabi’s Sustainability Week – Siemens is about to open its new Middle Eastern headquarters for 800 employees that same afternoon right next door in Masdar City – and Darrin Morgan of Boeing takes the opportunity to reveal to two journalists and a science writer a new development in biofuels which he is convinced will change the world. “The 20th Century saw Norman Borlaug’s Green revolution”, he says. “This is the next step after that.”
Morgan is not some green dreamer. He is Director of Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Environmental Strategy at The Boeing Company in Seattle in the US. He has worked on Boeing’s biofuels program for 10 years. And he is convinced that researchers at the Masdar Institute, sponsored by Boeing, Honeywell’s UOP and Etihad Airways, have achieved a breakthrough in biofuels that will make it possible for countries all over the world to turn their deserts into biofuel-producing agricultural lands. We are on the verge, says the Boeing man, of a totally sustainable solution that does not require any arable land and that is going to replace a very big chunk of the oil currently used in transport.
But before we come to that, Morgan tells the story of how it got that far. A story that’s fascinating in itself as it reveals some troublesome facts about the existing oil market, increasingly based as it is on unconventional oils like tar sands and shale oil.
Ahead of the game
For a number of years now, says Morgan, Boeing has been actively looking at how to help develop the biofuels market. They learned a lot as they went along. Morgan: “One of the lessons of early generation biofuels was: ignore stakeholder consequences at your peril.” He mentions corn ethanol as a “perfect example” of how NOT to do things. “There were policies in place before there was a clear understanding of the system. Look what happened. This is not a good environmental story and it is not a good economic story. This is so not what we’re looking at.”
“The biofuels that are now approved for use in aircraft are technically superior to kerosene jet fuel. There is no question about that”
“We took a play from that book and realized that is not the play we want to have”, he continues. “We realized we need to get ahead of the game in terms of understanding the right paths.”
To do so, Boeing realized that they needed to involve stakeholders – “to help us direct our thinking on where to go, to learn how to use sustainability as the criterion to drive us.” The company entered into various partnerships around the world, with NGO’s like WWF, and with agricultural and biological researchers and developers. “We have partnerships around the planet now. Some are formal research collaborations, like this one with the Masdar Institute. Some are more like stakeholder engagement processes.”
Morgan says Boeing and its partners have “a common goal: we want to have a strong market for sustainable biofuels”. There are two good practical reasons why the company takes sustainable biofuels seriously, he explains. First, they have discovered that the biofuels that are now approved for use in aircraft are technically superior to kerosene jet fuel. “There is no question about that”, says Morgan. “It surprised us. We had not expected that. We had expected the opposite. But the hydrotreated fuels we now use work very well for us. The biological sources of these fuels end up making jet fuels that are much better than petroleum jet fuels.”
Shale oil and tar sands
At the same time, Boeing found that while biofuels turned out to be much better in quality than expected, the quality of the existing oil supplies was going down. This, says Morgan, is the result of the poorer quality of the new types of unconventional oil that are coming onto the market like shale and tar sands – and the unwillingness of the oil companies to do anything about it.
“There is a trend going on in parts of the world, especially in North America, where there are alternative forms of crude being produced. The backpage story out there is that there is stuff in those fuels that appears to be causing problems in terms of contamination of jet fuel. There are additives that go into those types of crude that are getting through the refining system and into our supply and are actually causing problems for us. Our existing supply chain is increasingly being fed by these heavy forms of crude that are less jet-friendly, to put it simply.”
“We are such a small market, the oil companies are not particularly motivated to help us with our problems”
The new forms of crude “cause inefficiencies and problems in the system”, says Morgan. “That’s not a good trend. But we can’t do anything about it. The crude is where the crude is.” The aviation industry did ask oil companies to help them with their problem, but the oil suppliers, Morgan says, were not very helpful. “We are such a small market, the oil companies are not particularly motivated to help us with our problems. That’s fine. That’s their decision. So we realized we got to get ahead of this.” Later, Morgan says: “You know Shell, in the Netherlands, is just not supportive of biofuels. That’s fine, they don’t have to be, they have their own interests. But we have ours. We are going to move this.”
So Boeing decided to enter upon a different path: a search for biofuels with higher sustainability and lower cost. “Those two things are really the same”, notes Morgan. “The things that are causing first-generation biofuels to be expensive, like the use of valuable arable land and water, are also making them less sustainable. The leadership of the company decided we would go down the road of decreasing costs and increasing sustainability.”
“We are not going to go into biofuels”, he adds. “But we are going to steer those partnerships, those technologies, more towards aviation than they would otherwise be, because our incumbent energy providers wouldn’t do that. If we do nothing, the outcome will be tar sands and shale oil and that’s not a good outcome. But if we do something we can drive the technology towards a more sustainable pathway and get something that will be cost-effective and will cause biofuels to be better than they otherwise would be.”
Talking with NGO’s “and others who are deeply concerned about the effects of biofuels”, says Morgan, “we realized we need to get serious about sustainability. We need to live it. We actually need to use this as design criteria. Biofuels are not hurdles to be overcome, they are design criteria.”
In 2008, Boeing and others set up the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) of which by now a-third of all airlines are members of. The CEO’s of these companies “signed up to a pledge which states that they will work through strong sustainability criteria for their sourcing”. The sustainability standards used by SAFUG are “probably the strongest out there”, says Morgan. “They are recognized in the EU as a legally applicable standard. We have set the bar very high. We do this for sustainability reasons. But also to get lower costs.”
Which bring us to the research that has been going on at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi. “It is probably the best example of what we are looking for”, says Morgan.
“These plants tend to liberate these sugars relatively easily, so you need relatively low temperatures in the production process. Nobody knew this. It is a huge discovery that was made here”
What researchers at the Masdar Institute have been studying is a category of plants called halophytes. These plants have naturally evolved to be able to live on salt water. Not only that: they are also able to live in arid lands, in deserts. “If you look around you here [in Abu Dhabi], most of the plants you see are halophytes.”
Clearly if it is possible to grow plants in deserts around the world, and use them for biofuels, that would be an ideal solution. It would solve the major problems of traditional biofuels – use of fresh water and arable land – at one stroke. “Twenty per cent of the world’s land is either desert or becoming desert through overuse or mal-use”, Morgan notes. “And 97% 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.”
Boeing and its partners Honeywell UOP and Eithad Airways founded a research consortium called the Sustainable Bio-Energy Research Consortium (SBRC) which was invited by the government of Abu Dhabi to set up shop in Masdar City. Since 2009, the researchers at Masdar have studied the possibilities of halophytes. Remarkably, the consortium discovered that not much work had been done on halophytes up to that time. “We started to ask, who is working on this, because there is a lot of biomass potential out there. The science was there. The science said this can be made into biofuels pretty well. But if you looked at the patents, who is doing this, not really anybody. It was a whole new realm that nobody was looking at.”
And the researchers made a very pleasant discovery. It turned out, Morgan says, “that the types of halophytes we are working on are very amenable to being converted into sugars.” This is crucial in terms of the potential the plants have to produce energy cost-effectively, Morgan explains. “Plants contain lignin that keeps them stiff. The cellulose in the plant has to be separated from the lignin to liberate the sugars. Production costs are heavily influenced by how easy or difficult it is to do this. This is the name of the game for next-generation biofuels.”
“What the scientists here have found”, he adds, “is that the halophytic family tends to be low in lignin and high in the right type of sugars, which can be converted into hydrocarbons. These plants tend to liberate these sugars relatively easily, so you need relatively low temperatures in the production process. Nobody knew this. It is a huge discovery that was made here. We found it and repeated it.” This was about six months ago.
Combination with aquaculture
The consortium then decided to set up a pilot production facility which is now being built in Abu Dhabi right next door to Masdar City. There is yet one more element to this to complete the story, because what the researchers decided to do in this pilot project is also unique: they decided to combine the production of biofuels from halophytes with aquaculture.
Morgan explains the reason behind this. “With the earth’s oceans increasingly being emptied of fish, aquaculture is growing fast all over the world. The problem with aquaculture, however, is the waste it produces. This goes right into the ocean and creates a lot of environmental problems.” This “fish waste”, he says, is essentially a fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium suspended in salt water. “And guess what halophytes need to grow? Fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium suspended in salt water.”
“Integrating those two systems you get sustainable acquaculture that does not pollute the oceans and biomass that can be used for fuels”
“So the concept we took up here”, says Morgan, “is to build a pilot facility that integrates aquaculture with the growing of halophytes. Integrating those two systems you get sustainable acquaculture that does not pollute the oceans and biomass that can be used for fuels. We are now figuring out the optimal combination of the two systems.”
Morgan expects that the two-hectare pilot facility will up and running in a year. If all goes well, they will then develop a plot of land of 500 acres in western Abu Dhabi for the initial scale-up. “After that, if the results are what we expect them to be, you will start seeing thousands and thousands of hectares being developed”.
He notes that while the technology is being developed in Abu Dhabi, it has potential for the entire world. In fact, everywhere where there are deserts.
Does this mean we could see the world’s deserts turn into agricultural land producing sustainable biofuels that will be able to replace oil in transport? “Yes”, says Morgan. “I believe this will be the big gamechanger for biofuels. Nobody has looked at this before.” And it would not just be relevant for the air transport sector. “It will be much bigger.”
So far, Boeing and its partners have not given much publicity to their expectations. They did announce the results of their research, but in fairly technical terms. “We have been quiet about it”, says Morgan. But he is too excited to keep quiet any longer. “To me this is the biggest breakthrough out there. The 20th Century saw Norman Borlaug’s Green revolution, this is the next step after that.”