The company is researching a cheap, salt-tolerant seaweed that could soon fuel our bodies, our cars, our jets—even a mission to Mars
By Kate Ryan, GOOD.is
In a Twitter rant that has become the norm for our president-elect, Donald Trump announced that he’d cancel the government’s contract with Boeing to replace Air Force One, citing the costs as “out of control.” While Trump estimated the project to cost $4 billion, Boeing said in a statement that it is only under contract for $170 million “to help determine the capabilities of this complex military aircraft that serves the unique requirements of the president of the United States.” Boeing added that “they look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force on subsequent phases of the program.”
What Trump failed to make clear in his reactive tweet is that, currently, Air Force One is reaching the end of its 30-year lifespan. Failing to provide an alternative wouldn’t just do a disservice to the executive branch, but to the American people as well. Because Boeing planned to build Air Force One in the United States, cancelling the contract would mean eliminating a diverse array of American jobs. On a grander scale, Boeing currently leads the charge in revitalizing the economy and environment with clean alternatives to fossil fuel, making them more than worthy of America’s prolonged investment.
Let me explain. When Congress announced plans to reach Mars by 2030 this past fall, American minds turned toward the great beyond. Getting there, however, will take an expansive budget, as well as unimaginable resources—fuel being paramount. Rather than drain the earth’s fossil fuels (as Trump would have us do) or cultivate biofuels using corn, sugarcane, or other valuable food reserves, there may be a foolproof alternative that could help us reach the stars while also preserving the home planet we know and love.
That’s where halophytes come in. Otherwise known as saltwater and salt-tolerant plants, they grow in arid and semi-arid regions where staple crops like soy and wheat cannot. This combination of advantages should prove crucial in a world where 97 percent of water is salty, and deserts occupy one third of its landmass. In addition to providing fuel via its oil-rich seeds, certain halophyte varieties are able to multitask as a food source.
Which brings us to Boeing. One of the largest aerospace companies in the world, Boeing has taken notice of the plant’s possibilities. Over the past few years, the corporation has partnered with Etihad Airways and the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar Institute of Science and Technology’s Seawater Energy and Agriculture System program to research and develop sustainable halophyte jet fuels. So far, SEAS has focused on Salicornia, which NASA Langley Research Center Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell has described as a super plant: “Bottom line, halophytes uniquely solve land, water, food, energy, and the climate, full stop.” Boeing claims that its research has so far led to the “biggest breakthrough in biofuels ever,” with the potential to create a renewable, clean-burning material that could power jets and stimulate a shift in the global marketplace toward sustainable energy sources.
Seashore mallow appears to be particularly promising; Gallagher and Seliskar discovered it by happenstance after funding for research into biofuels—which emit 50 to 80 percent less carbon than fossil fuels—dwindled, along with gas prices in the early 1980s. Realizing they needed to find a way to make the crop self-subsidizing, “We started looking at the stems, nectar, looking at it as a nurse crop and a buffer between uplands and the water,” says Gallagher. From there, the team found the stems to be a perfect material for animal bedding, kitty litter, hydromulch, and cloth. “It turns out that maybe the stems are worth more than the seeds,” he says.
From both environmental and economic standpoints, halophytes might just be nature’s cure-all. So when will this maritime miracle take over the world? While botanists work on increasing seed availability, commercial viability is the next step. Consumers who demand alternative energy solutions can help take seaweed fuel from blueprint to blue book, but the responsibility will ultimately fall on government officials to support companies at the forefront of these developments. Take note, Donald.