April 7, 2008

Taking Aloft With Sustainable Biojet

by Patrick Mazza

When a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 took off for a 40-minute flight from London to Amsterdam Feb. 24, it represented an aviation breakthrough. For the first time a commercial airliner took aloft on other than fossil fuels. One of the plane’s four engines was fired on a 20 percent biojet fuel blend. The aim of the test flight was to explore how a biofuel performs in high altitude cold temperatures.

“Two years ago, people said that was impossible. They said it would freeze at 30,000 feet,” Virgin’s Richard Branson told the New York Times.

The plane reached altitude, all systems go, using biojet made by Imperium Renewables. Now partners Virgin, Boeing, General Electric and Imperium are analyzing results, while Boeing has slated tests with other partners. Later this year Air New Zealand will test one of its Boeing models on biojet, this time with the other big jet engine maker, Rolls Royce. Then in 2009 Boeing will line up with Continental Airlines for the first North American test, this time in a 737.

The involvement of such heavyweight players in developing sustainable biojet fuel holds great promise for developing sustainable biofuels overall. In fact, economic and political forces driving the aviation industry virtually mandate that when biojet reaches commercial status, it will be truly sustainable, reducing global warming emissions and based on next generation non-food feedstocks.

First, the aviation industry has solid, economically-driven reasons to reduce its carbon emissions. Premier among them is the coming of carbon fees on aviation. For an industry already stressed by rising oil prices this represents additional pressure that makes it harder for airlines to buy Boeing airplanes.

Air travel represents 2-4 percent of global warming emissions. The EU is slated to start regulating air emissions on flights within and into the continent at the start of 2012. While JPMorgan in a recent report on “Airlines and climate change,” projects only modest impacts on airlines before 2015, by 2020 carbon emissions costs “are likely to be significantly higher…”

In a related angle, growing concerns over air travel’s impact on the climate is raising fears among airline executives that their reputation could descend to something resembling tobacco industry status. The airline industry itself is worried about public goodwill which translates into the marketability of its products.

JPMorgan noted this is a greater short-term threat to airlines than carbon pricing. “Carriers that present themselves as unconcerned about climate change or that reject responsibility to address the problem could find themselves targets of activist campaigns, with negative financial implications.”

In fact, the day after the test flight took off from Heathrow, Greenpeace climate campaign protestors

So Boeing’s airline customers are demanding options. With its lightweight carbon-body 787 Dreamliner reducing fuel consumption 20 percent, Boeing is better positioned than its Airbus competitor to face the changing environment. But Boeing executives concluded that would not be enough to meet the carbon challenge so their considerations turned to sustainable biofuels. So from the start biojet development has focused on next generation feedstocks that avoid the problems and controversies facing first generation starch- and oilseed-based biofuels.

Boeing’s interest is not in trading one set of controversies for another, but in developing biofuels that demonstrate carbon reductions in the range of 50 percent or so. It is their customers who are going to have to pay the per-ton price on carbon, so options that do not genuinely address carbon and climate issues are not going to fly.

Branson himself said that the oils used on Feb. 24 are not available in large enough quantities to significantly impact those concerns. In fact, first generation coconut and babassu oil feedstocks were used for the test flight because the second generation was not available. This test was to validate the feasibility of biojet. Even then the partners deliberately targeted feedstocks that do not contribute to deforestation. Coconut is a mature market with established plantations, while babassu is a wild palm harvested by local villagers.

The next test aims to validate sustainability. When the Air New Zealand test takes place, it will be with a second generation feedstock. Of the possibilities, two are worth noting: algae and jatropha. Both grow on non-agricultural land. Algae can employ saline water, and jatropha grows in dry conditions on degraded lands, in fact helping accumulate carbon in the soil. There are solid indications that biojet from jatropha or algae could provide massive amounts of fuel, and at costs lower than petroleum-based jet fuel.

Boeing’s own presentation on alternative fuels shows that land use issues are part of the sustainable biojet program’s DNA. “If the world airline fleet used 100% biojet fuel from soybeans, it would require 322 billion litres,” the presentation says. At 560 liters of oil per hectare that would require 5,750 million square kilometers, about the size of Europe. But algae could produce up to 94,000 liters per acre, shrinking land requirements to 35,000 square kilometers, about a Belgium’s worth of land.

Boeing Commercial Environmental Strategy lead Bill Glover notes that second-generation biofuels are “designed to avoid the problems of first-generation fuels that replaced grain stocks, used large quantities of water or required vast areas of agricultural land.” Glover said in the past two years he “changed from being a skeptic to an enthusiastic supporter of sustainable biofuels … It will take time to collect the data and get confidence [in the fuel], but an aircraft powered by a biofuel blend could be flying as early as five years’ time. Within 10 years we can have a significant impact on the market and on the carbon footprint of aviation.”

A larger context surrounds the development of biojet, the overall thrust for alternatives to petroleum jet fuels that includes potentially carbon-intensive fossil fuel alternatives. Another test flight by Airbus earlier in February underscored the danger. Airbus flew an A380 from England to France on a jet fuel derived from natural gas supplied by Shell. The oil company has made large investments in gas-to-liquids, and is also exploring coal-to-liquids options. The U.S. military is also testing jet fuel made from coal, recently staging a coast-to-coast flight.

Gas-based fuels, according to research by UC Berkeley, will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-based fuels could produce double the emissions. So they will offer either slightly, or dramatically increased, cost to airlines facing carbon pricing. But climate is only one of two major drivers for alternative jet fuel. The other is cost and availability of petroleum, at this writing hovering above $100/barrel. If biofuel options do not become available, it is almost certain that carbon-intensive natural gas and coal options will.

The fact that major players such as Boeing and the airlines understand that they have a solid business interest in developing sustainable biojet should be cause for hope. Their involvement will provide needed resources and markets for second-generation feedstocks from algae, jatropha and other sources. The benefits will not just accrue to the aviation industry, but to the advancement of second-generation biofuels generally.

The fact the atmosphere will no longer be a free dumping ground for pollution, but that emissions will carry a cost, is already profoundly changing the parameters of business decision making. This is exactly how carbon policy is intended to perform. The development of biojet is a premier demonstration of how the coming of carbon pricing is already moving the business world toward innovative, low-carbon solutions. penetrated the tarmac and wrapped a banner around an aircraft tailfin protesting plans for airport expansion.

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