Aviation Industry Hangs Its Future on Biofuels

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Aviation demand for biofuels is bursting at the seams.  Hemmed in by emerging certifications, a petroleum-based distribution network, and lack of supply, the industry is stuck on petroleum fuels for now, but not by choice.

Pressure to integrate more biofuels into the supply chain is palpable: oil price increases, oil price volatility, oil scarcity, greenhouse gas emission regulation, and increasingly, corporate social responsibility commitments.  The future of the aviation sector is dependent on its ability to pivot away from petroleum-based fuels to alternative sources of energy, and they must do it quickly.

One caveat: while demand may be substantial, no one knows for sure if supply can keep pace, which makes statements from aviation experts at the World Biofuels Markets taking place in Amsterdam this week all that more interesting.

According to reports out of Amsterdam, aviation experts project that within a decade, passenger planes will be flying mostly on jet fuel made from plants — camelina, jatropha, flax, marsh grass, etc. — as airlines decouple from oil markets to reduce cost and uncertainty.  This statement is true insofar as airlines will be using increasing quantities of biofuels.  The key issue that remains: ‘how much?”

Major test flights have already been completed — Japan Airlines, Virgin Airways, Air New Zealand, and KLM — which suggests that most airlines want in on the act.  The test flights have shown that “Bio-SPK,” or biomass-derived jet fuel, actually performs as well or better than petroleum-based jet fuel.  Studies have also shown that the life cycle emissions associated with Bio-SPK is considerably lower than petroleum-based fuels.

ASTM, an international standards setting organization, is likely to certify 50 percent Bio-SPK blends with petroleum jet fuel this year, which would open the floodgates of expanding production of renewable jet fuel.  So theoretically, demand will only be tempered by available supply.

But land use has remained a thorny issue for biofuels, which makes ramping up production of Bio-SPK-ready feedstocks all the more challenging.  The graph below from Enviro-aero shows the relative land use demands of various aviation jet-fuel feedstocks:

Some fear aviation biofuel demand would hasten the destruction of tropical forests (ILUC) and the conversion of cropland from food to fuel (food v. fuel).  The Global Forest Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups, states:

Dependency on agrofuels will lead to faster deforestation and climate change and spells disaster for indigenous peoples, other forest-dependent communities and small farmers.

While the aviation industry has primarily been focused on sustainable biofuels to date — jatropha and camelina — it is unclear what certification will do in terms of fueling the aviation sector’s appetite for large quantities of biofuels. The pressure to protect the bottom line from uncertainty in the oil markets and emerging aviation GHG emissions regulations from the EU is substantial.

Emerging sustainability standards, like the one being developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, will play a roll in channeling demand towards sustainable feedstocks. And since airlines are large targets, exposed to the scrutiny of the public, the industry will likely tread softly to avoid initiating a public backlash.

What does this mean? Look for non-food feedstocks like camelina, jatropha, waste, and algae to be the top contenders for the aviation sector’s future plans.

Mackinnon Lawrence is an attorney, principal consultant with Biomass Advisors, and editor & publisher of Biomass Intel. Article appearing courtesy Biomass Intel.

photo: El Fotopakismo

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  1. Our company has bio-fuel feedstock resources based upon over 1,000,000 coconut trees in our area of operations within the Central Pacific. We also have over 4,000 square miles of protected saltwater lagoons providing excellent growing and cultivating area for the proper oil bearing strains of algae. And when we gain production of our algae oil, along with the production of our coconut trees, which is presently producing oil from dried coconut “Copra” (to provide oil for soap and cleanser industries, cosmetics, health foods, etc.), to pure oil for a feedstock for the production of Bio-Jet Fuels, our land use does not change. It hasn’t changed for over 200 years. Either way, our trees produce enough coconuts per year to supply us with 20,000,000 gpy of pure oil for refining to JP-8 and JET-A Bio-Jet Fuels. Our coconut oil production will peak and sustain itself after about 5 years of new and continual replanting and renewed cultivation of our trees. Although we may reach a sustainable peak level with about 1,200,000, our trees will continue providing over 20,000,000 gpy, it will not peak and then decline. Production will remain fairly constant from then on, barring an Act of God.
    During this period of steady production of up to 50,000 gpd of refined bio-jet fuels from our ongoing coconut oil supply, we will begin our developing; preparation, growing, and cultivating our algae with our special flotation and other growing infrastructure for applicable oil bearing strains of algae. The algae growing operations will supplement our oil feedstock with an additional 2,560,000,000 gpy of algae oil. (based upon a minimal figure of 1,000 gpy per acre) of our lagoon growing area of 2,560,000 acres (which also has the capability of being expanded to almost twice the initial growing area). An amount of Bio-Jet Fuel that will place a large dent into the daily use of Jet Fuel today.
    If the above saltwater (tropical) lagoon growing areas can prove out as not only feasible, but viable as well, the costs of initial oil production would plummet. Especially, if simplified methods of growing, along with methods of oil extraction can be employed without getting carried away with exotic lights, LED lamps, photo bio-reactors, etc. I would hesitate to make a guess as to the costs involved to zap all the algae to make it grow faster in smaller spaces with new types of lighting, and weird forms of synthesis. I believe the energy expended would probably be greater than the value of the product. SBAE Industries has made some important inroads in the above. Based upon their knowledge of algae this company has developed two algae production platforms. One of them, DiaForce, is enabling mass production of algal biomass which is suited for the bio-fuels market. I believe that the goals of the Aircraft Transport Industry, as well as the U.S. Military may be a little too ambitious. However, there is a definite reality involved. Unfortunately, aircraft cannot fly on batteries, nor can they do much with solar panels attached to their wings. They will require a liquid non-carbon fuel for some time into the future. Even with our company prepared physically, and prepared to begin immediate and actual production, we seldom hear a knock at our door. Our company can help those that truly seek a break-through in Bio-Jet Fuels. We are actively seeking a Joint Venture Partner(s) and have much to contribute including supply contracts to the U.S. Air Force Bases in our Central Pacific area, Guam, and Japan.
    Thank you for the opportunity to provide this comment and opinion.
    Gunther Mothes
    Spicewind Pacific Group

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