Every day, about 300,000 commercial, chartered and cargo flights take off all over the globe. The world uses a staggering amount of aviation fuel. The U.S. alone consumes about 20 billion gallons each year. While current demand for jet fuel worldwide is about 5 million barrels per day, or 5.8 percent of total global oil consumption, a paper published in 2010 in OPEC Energy Review estimated that even as modern aircraft engines become more efficient, demand for fuel could increase by as much as 2.7 million more barrels per day by 2030.
The economics of aviation fuel is becoming a concern. The volatility in petroleum prices worries commercial airlines. In 2006, fuel became the single largest operating expense for U.S. airlines. Given the importance of aviation to world economies and couple that with the uncertainty, cost and price volatility of fuel and the increasing need to lower carbon emissions, the aviation industry has an important new goal: alternative sources for fuel that are both secure and sustainable. To that end, there have been partnerships and research ventures signed between government aviation agencies, civil authorities and the airlines focused on developing alternative jet fuels.
Most recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its German counterpart, the BMVBS, signed an agreement that will promote, develop and use sustainable aviation fuels. The two agencies will share ideas, information and research, technical expertise and best practices. Signed at the Berlin Air Show by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, the agreement is intended to yield not just ideas but results.
“This, and other declarations of cooperation with international partners such as Australia and Brazil, will enable us to better share and exchange technologies, and that will benefit aviation on a global level,” Murphy said.
In the U.S., the most prominent group in alternative fuels is the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a coalition of interested stakeholders, including the FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy; the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), which represents airports; Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which represents aviation manufacturers; and the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), which represents U.S. airlines.
Late last year, the FAA said it would award $7.7 million in contracts to eight companies to help advance alternative green aviation fuels. The funds, to be distributed by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) John A. Volpe Center, would be available to companies that have shown the ability to create sustainably sourced, “drop-in” jet fuels that can be used by aircraft without any need to alter their engine systems.
Most of such fuels in development come from biological sources such as alcohols, algae, sugars, biomass and organic materials known as pyrolysis oils. Pyrolysis oils are extracted from biomass materials when they are put through a procedure called destructive distillation, which takes place in a reactor at ultrahigh temperatures. These pyrolysis oils are then turned into aromatic hydrocarbons needed to fuel aircraft.
The ultimate goal is to create a 100-percent renewable jet fuel from biomass. It is a goal to which an important milestone might be reached before the end of this year, when the National Research Council of Canada plans to make the first-ever test flight of a civil jet powered by 100-percent biofuel. The fuel is sourced from the oil seed plant Brassica carinata, or Ethiopian mustard.
While a 100-percent sustainable fuel is the goal, the aviation industry had made a lot of progress with 50/50 blended mixes of traditional fuels and biofuels. In June, Airbus (which has vowed to become carbon-neutral by 2020) and Air Canada joined forces on an experimental, cross-border flight that they claimed cut carbon emissions by more than 40 percent compared with a traditional flight. The flight used a biofuel blend that consisted of 50 percent used cooking oil.
Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier said the flight proved that the aviation industry is in a strong position to reduce emissions and make sustainable fuel a commercial reality. However, he noted that accomplishing this goal would require “a political will to foster incentives to scale up the use of sustainable biofuels.”
Political will is always a sticking point. There is no question that without intense investment in aviation biofuels, they will never scale up to the kind of production volume and cost efficiencies needed to become economically viable. There is also no doubt that there will be the predictable political criticism, cynicism and sidelining that other alternative energy solutions have experienced, particularly in the U.S. The New York Times‘ recent article, “Military Spending on Biofuel Draws Fire,” is proof.
Then, there are the requisite concerns about using crops for fuel rather than food. Many airlines that are well invested in biofuels are pulling back, as concerns grow about falling food supplies and rising food prices, Reuters reported recently.
It is rumored that the EU is preparing to impose a limit on crop-based biofuels, according to the report; Reuters said it has seen draft legislation. In mid-September, France announced that it will seek to pause development of biofuels because of the third global food-price spike in four years.
So what about making biofuels from non-food crops? Though they are further behind, their potential for serving the good of the environment is likely far higher. Airbus noted that it is currently researching the production of biofuels based on algae, cooking oil and non-food crops such as camelina — a plant whose seeds have been used for oil since ancient times — and jatropha, a poisonous flowering plant native to the Americas.
Lufthansa recently signed a contract with Australia’s Algae-Tec, which says only about 1,200 acres of algae are required to produce 100,000 metric tons of oil per year, compared with 1.7 million acres for corn and 131,000 acres for jatropha. American biofuel company Solazyme has developed a technology that converts algae to biomass to oil, using an indirect photosynthesis process. The company says once it scales up to full commercial production, it could supply between 50 to 100 million gallons of cost-competitive jet biofuel for about $60 to $80 a barrel. Solazyme already has signed contracts with the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
There are companies pursuing the more complicated cellulose-based biofuels, which use scrap materials instead of crops. Primus Energy, an American company backed by Israel Corp., has plans to build a production plant that can theoretically make 20 million gallons of jet fuel each year from wood pellets and natural gas.
Out of all technologies, crop-based oils are still nearest to mass production, and even then, they are a long way from fulfilling the world’s aviation needs. Many airlines that had been operating commercial flights on 50/50 blends of biofuel and traditional jet fuel have had to stop due to a lack of supply. Fuel producers say that to move forward, they will need further significant investment in their technologies and production facilities, along with regulatory backing — a need that may not be forthcoming anytime soon.