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High on Pond Scum: When Will Aviation Biofuels Justify the Hype?

Two weeks ago, a Gulfstream G-450 loaded with journalists and executives from Honeywell’s energy division, UOP, departed from Morristown, N.J. and touched down at Le Bourget Airport after an “utterly unremarkable” flight.

The purpose of the flight, which retraced Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 pond crossing, was to prove for the Paris Air Show the viability of the fuel that held them aloft: 50-50 blend of jet fuel and a biofuel derived from camelina, a seed plant. The blend saved 5.5 metric tons of carbon emissions for the flight compared to straight jet fuel, according to the company. (A 747 crossed the Atlantic several days later on a similar biofuel blend.)

Jim Rekoske, vice president and general manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals for UOP, said that recent events had brought biofuels “one step closer to commercial use that will help the aviation community reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on crude.”

Not everyone was impressed.

“It would have been a technical shocker only if the fuel didn’t work,” said James Bartis, a biofuels expert at the Rand Corp.

Aviation biofuels derived from camelina, jatropha, algae and other sources have been hyped, and funded, for years as petroleum alternatives that are just years away from widespread adoption. This view was affirmed in June when the oil-product standards body ASTM International granted preliminary approval for commercial airlines to use aviation biofuels (also known as BIO SPK).

The approval comes as airlines are facing pressure, particularly in Europe, to reduce their emissions, which account for 2 percent of global carbon emissions.

Despite the obvious appeal of biofuels for energy security and environmental sustainability, analysts, researchers and even some within the industry remain skeptical that large numbers of passengers will be kept aloft by pond scum and scrub plants anytime soon.

Scalability an issue

The issue isn’t whether biofuels can power jets – that’s largely been proven.

The question is whether biofuels can be produced at a large enough scale to offset petroleum use – some 19 million barrels per day, according to RAND.

Bartis believes that algae has more potential but is still “a research topic,” and the industry needs to mature.

Another knock against some biofuels is their carbon footprint.

Some fuels, such as palm oil grown in clear cut rainforests, require energy-intensive processing and adverse changes to land use that they result in higher carbon emissions than oil throughout their “lifecycle,” according to research by James Hileman principal research engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.

Hileman said that the biofuels industry will get better at reducing its carbon footprint as it matures, but a headlong rush into biofuels without this kind of analysis would be a mistake.

Commercially viable in 2020?

None of this, however, precludes the possibility that individual biofuel companies will be successful.

One particular bright spot in biofuels has been Solazyme, a San Francisco-based company that grows algae in the dark by feeding them sugars. The company raised about $200 million in an initial public offering in May.

Yields from camelina, jatropha and other seed oils are so low that they could only provide a fraction of a percent of oil’s production, according to Bartis.

In January, he co-authored a coruscating report for Rand’s National Defense Research Institute that concluded the U.S. Defense Department received no benefit from its considerable investment in biofuels. (The Pentagon replied that every domestically produced barrel of biofuels improves U.S. energy security.)

Cameron Byers, Solazyme’s senior vice president and general manager of fuels and chemicals, said the company could produce renewable oils at $3.44 per gallon in a purpose-built commercial plant.

Solazyme recently tested its fuel, which reduces lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions 66-93 percent compared to petroleum-based fuels, in a U.S. Navy helicopter, Byers wrote in an email.

Solazyme may be a good investment, but experts noted that the process still requires feeding sugars or other biomass to the algae, which limits its scalability. There is more hope for photosynthetic processes that require only sunlight – ExxonMobil has invested in one such venture, called Synthetic Genomics – but that could be years away.

Meanwhile, many algae companies are using the algae for other end uses, such as cosmetics, supplements and food, since biofuels are generally too expensive currently to be commercially viable, according to Mackinnon Lawrence, a biofuels industry analyst who recently authored a report for Pike Research on the industry.

“The fuels market is just looking further off than people were hoping for,” Lawrence said.

How far off?

Lawrence said it could be 2020 before biofuels have a significant impact on the market.

Bartis argued by analogy that the date could be further off still.

“When I joined the Energy Department in 1978, we were sure that photovoltaic (solar panels) were five years away from being commercially viable,” Bartis said. “They’ve been five years away ever since.”

Article appearing courtesy Txchnologist.