A NASA scientist is confident that within five years commercial aircraft could be powered using a type of biofuel derived from saltwater plants, or halophytes, grown in desert areas and irrigated using sea water. While the concept may sound far-fetched, engine manufacturer General Electric says it is following developments in this area "with interest", and a major oil company, which prefers to remain anonymous, says it is considering the idea to see how much benefit it has.
Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, says 22 countries are carrying out small experimental activities into the cultivation of halophytes for use in food production....
The advantage of developing biofuel from halophytes as opposed to other types of biomass is that saltwater plants are not dependent on fresh water
, which is in increasingly short supply, and can instead be irrigated using plentiful sea water supplies. Bushnell notes that, following irrigation, the salt from the sea water "should leach back into the ocean" without causing problems to agriculture.
Suitable areas around the world for cultivating halophytes include the Sahara desert, Western Australia, south-west USA, parts of the Middle East and parts of Peru. Scientists claim that an area smaller than the Sahara desert could yield enough biomass to replace the world's fossil fuel requirements.