The growth of the bioenergy industry has seen struggles between food and fuel, leading aviation to seek sources of biofuel that do not compete for resources. But the paradigm has shifted to “food and fuel” and systems that turn the byproducts of farming into valuable products, as demonstrated by the opening of an aquaculture-to-biofuel pilot project in Abu Dhabi.

The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System project by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) pumps ocean water into fish and shrimp ponds. Nutrient-rich wastewater is then used to irrigate salt-tolerant halophyte plants, which clean the water as it drains into a mangrove wetland and back into the ocean. The halophytes and mangroves then provide biomass for energy.

Led by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the SBRC includes founding members Boeing, Etihad Airways and process developer Honeywell UOP, as well as General Electric, Safran and Abu Dhabi oil refining company Takreer.

The pilot facility was formally opened on March 6. “For the past five years we have been tending to the science side,” says Darrin Morgan, director of Boeing’s sustainable biofuels strategy. “Now we take all those studies, carbon life-cycle calculations, performance and economic analyses—all of which indicate positive things—and put them to the test.”

Aquaculture is already a big industry. “It is larger than open-ocean fishing and growing at 8% a year,” says Morgan. “The problem that has not been solved is what to do with the waste. In many places it is not treated, and pumping large amounts of nutrient-charged effluent into natural watersheds creates an ecosystem problem.”

Building sewage plants may not be affordable, he says, so the project will demonstrate a way to clean the aquaculture effluent in a value-creating way, by turning the waste into biofuel and other more valuable bio-based products such as specialty chemicals. “This is a way to grow aquaculture to large scale,” he says. “If it can break even and be cost-neutral, it’s a win. If it can make money, it’s a win-win.”

The goal of the 2-hectare (5-acre) pilot facility is to iron out any economic or environmental issues before the integrated system is ready to be scaled up. “We expect positive results, but there will be learning—things we did not predict,” he says.

In addition to the fields, ponds and pumping station above ground, there is an instrumentation infrastructure underground to measure flows, the accumulation of nutrients at certain points, disease vectors and other information needed to determine viability.

The energy required comes from solar power. “The facility is off-grid and self-contained. At commercial scale, we expect these systems to be in places, in developing economies, without robust power grids. So we are starting off with that in mind,” says Morgan.

“It is carefully contained. We will measure precisely how much energy we put in versus how much is output, and coordinate that with the [carbon dioxide] life-cycle calculations,” he says. The next several months will be spent bringing all parts of the system to equilibrium.

The pilot is a research facility and can simulate ecosystems and environments in regions other than just Abu Dhabi’s. The four aquaculture ponds and eight fields of different types of halophyte plants will be connected in different ways to find the best combinations.

Some of the halophytes are perennial and some annual, requiring seeds to be planted each year. “We will test several types at scale. Some work in the United Arab Emirates, some elsewhere,” says Morgan. “The pilot facility allows us to test multiple crops and conditions at the same time.”

The goal is to optimize and synchronize the type of aquaculture against the types of halophytes and their growth cycles. “We are trying to synchronize two systems of living organisms to where we need them to be. It is a two-way effect,” he says.

How quickly the crops mature and how effectively their biomass can be converted into valuable product streams are key issues. “We have the techno-economic models, we understand the theory, but that is what the pilot is there for: We have to do a truth test,” he says.

The pilot project is starting with wild halophytes. “As a baseline, the first year will be as they are; then there will be natural breeding of the plants-—we will not do genetic modification,” says Morgan. “They perform pretty well in their wild state. They grow in extreme environments so are already very efficient.

“We think the capability is not far off. This time next year, after a full year of operation, we should know how far or near the path to commercial scale is,” he says. “We expect to know in a year how long it will take to make the system viable. That’s why we built the pilot.”

Biomass from the pilot facility will be converted to jet fuel and other products using different process pathways, “both proven and emerging,” and not just those already approved for use in aircraft, says Morgan. “There will be more pathways next year, and more the year after. It is part of the calculus.”