Jet Fuels II: What Alternatives Are Out There Besides Biofuels?

At the recent ILA Berlin Air Show, a declaration was signed, “facilitating the promotion, development and utilization of sustainable alternative aviation fuels in the U.S. and Germany.”


That’s according to industry journal Aerospace Manufacturing And Design, which went on to note that the point of the declaration “is to exchange ideas, information, skills and techniques and work on issues and projects of mutual interest with regard to the development and use of sustainable alternative aviation fuels.”

The agreement was signed between the Federal Aviation Administration and Germany’s BMVBS, which translates to the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development.

U.S. ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy was quoted in Air Traffic Management saying “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.”

The cooperative was struck because finding a suitable alternative jet fuel has been a bit of a Holy Grail. Earlier in the week, Green & Clean highlighted some biofuel technologies in the works. One hope was biofuel based on the inedible jatropha plant, which back in December 2008 was the poster child for alternative aviation fuel possibilities. The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog had a piece that declared, “Aviation took another step toward using renewable fuels, with a two-hour jatropha-fueled test flight by Air New Zealand,” adding that “the flight was longer and included a richer mix of biofuel than an earlier flight by Virgin.”

Reporting on the same event, the New York Times detailed that jatropha oil was used in a 50/50 blend with conventional jet fuel in one of the four Rolls-Royce engines that powered a Boeing 747-400, and that Air New Zealand officials were hopeful of jatropha being approved and commercially produced as an aviation fuel within five years.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Large-scale jatropha development projects were subsequently abandoned by BP and others, and today it’s not considered anything more than a niche player. In September 2011, SG Biofuels, a San Diego-based company backed by Airbus SAS, announced that it would plant 75,000 acres of jatropha in Brazil to power aircraft for about $50 a barrel less than traditional jet fuel.

As mentioned in the previously linked Green & Clean article, Bloomberg reported that at the time, the plans were for unrefined jatropha oil to sell for $75 a barrel, according to SG Biofuels President Kirk Haney. He told Bloomberg that jatropha was the most practical way of blending with jet fuel and that the development of higher-yielding jatropha seeds would bring prices down to $38 a barrel within a decade.

Meanwhile, there is other biofuel work being done, but the projects face challenges.

Basically the aviation industry is concerned with three factors when it comes to fuel: availability, cost and environmental impact. And, frankly, it is safe to say the first two concerns generate far greater attention than the last. With conventional fuels being so expensive now, R&D into alternative fuels make sense. Should the price of crude oil drop considerably, the R&D work would likely be shelved.

Prominent among those searching for long-term solutions is the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, described as “a cooperative effort among interested stakeholders to bring commercially viable, environmentally friendly alternative aviation fuels to market.” CAAFI acts as a clearinghouse to help exchange information and coordinate efforts. The organization’s website lists three areas they’re focusing on now.

First is fuel certification, which involves tracking flight-test information on synthetic fuels and biofuels with an eye on certifying them for use. “Significant volumes of alternative aviation fuels are not likely to be in the pipeline for another three years,” according to CAAFI, but in five years, three facilities could be constructed and produce 30,000 barrels per day. Also, there could be 10 hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) fuel facilities producing 6,500 barrels per day. They would total about 4.2 percent of this country’s annual jet fuel demand of approximately 22.8 billion gallons.

CAAFI’s second initiative is environmental profile, which involves finding a consistent definition of appropriate life-cycle analysis methodology for examining all the potential alternative-fuel candidates. And the third is project financing, appropriately termed “the biggest remaining challenge to the deployment of alternative aviation fuels.” Says CAAFI: “Financing will become more achievable as the cost of production is reduced through manufacturing technology.”

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuel and Energy in Aviation agency of the European Commission, notes, rather logically, that “the most likely alternative fuels for aviation are those with similar characteristics to conventional jet fuel,” which can be had by blending different fuels.

SWAFEA says the most promising options right now are synthetic fuels derived from natural gas, coal or biomass, usually produced via a gasification step, through the formation of a synthesis gas (mainly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) and its conversion to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The advantage with this type of fuel is that it has high energy density and low-temperature and thermal stability.

And in some regard, synthetic fuels even better than conventional fuels, as SWAFEA finds them to be a bit more efficient. The drawback is that synthetic fuels are expensive to produce, and they are not a significant gain ecologically, since they still require a carbon dioxide-emitting source to manufacture.

CAAFI officials also point to synthetic liquid fuels manufactured from coal, biomass or natural gas or “combinations thereof” as being viable, “nearly identical replacements” for kerosene, underlining the point by noting that the U.S. Air Force “plans for its entire fleet to run on fuels that are at least 50 percent synthetic by 2016.”

In case you are wondering, ethanol “does not appear to be an option for transport aircraft but may be relevant to general aviation,” CAAFI says. And it lists hydrogen as “a very long-term option.”

While synthetic and other alternative fuels stand a pretty good chance of enabling greater energy security and being a reliable fuel source for aviation, they do not seem to really contribute much when it comes to lowering carbon dioxide emissions, and until significantly cheaper production is found, they won’t impact costs much either.

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