Sustainable jet fuel from Australian mallee trees could be powering aircraft from Perth by 2021, finds study
Mallee trees in the WA wheatbelt (photo: Cliff Winfield, Dept of Parks and Wildlife)
Fri 23 May 2014 – A two-year study commissioned by Airbus, Virgin Australia and other partners has concluded the mallee tree could be the basis for a viable and sustainable jet biofuel sector in Western Australia. The report on the study published by the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Centre (CRC) says jet fuel produced from the tree would meet strict sustainability criteria determined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). The sustainability and life-cycle analysis carried out in the study covered the growing and harvesting of mallees and their conversion into aviation grade biofuel through the fast pyrolysis thermal and upgrading processes developed by Canadian company Dynamotive and France’s IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN). The analysis shows the biofuel could emit 40 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional petroleum-based kerosene.
The report, says the Australian government-backed CRC, provides enough evidence to support continued R&D on mallee production and bio-oil upgrading, and to inform the business case for commercial production starting in Western Australia to supply Perth Airport. It estimates a mallee-based biofuels industry – including harvesting, transport and production – could provide employment for 40 people and bring about A$30 million (US$28m) per year. Scaled-up production around many processing centres could be 10 times this, it adds.
The vast Great Southern region of the state was used in the study, which included examining the viability of a complete industry supply chain from grower to aviation user.
Mallee eucalypts are grown in belts across Australian wheatbelt farms and provide vegetative cover. They are hardy trees that can withstand regular harvesting while benefiting the farm in other ways. With a deep-rooted system and perennial growth, the mallee can draw up excess water to reduce waterlogging of crops. Its ability to draw down the water table and intercept unused rainfall, along with its commercial prospects, make it a valuable part of catchment management strategies to protect natural areas from excessive inundation or salinity, says the report. Mallees are claimed to flourish in regions of poor soil and not to compete for water or with food production.
“We already know that mallee growing integrates well with farm crop and livestock operations and can benefit natural resources in a number of ways, such as protecting and enhancing biodiversity, and contributing to rebalancing water tables,” said CRC Research Director Dr John McGrath.
“What this report demonstrates is that mallees can provide a future economic benefit to farmers and regional communities, with a viable industry possible by 2021.
“The scenario tested was based on what we know from existing plantings, and indicates that mallees could occupy up to six per cent of farm paddocks or about one per cent of the Great Southern region.”
CRC believes farmers in the region growing mallees on marginal cropping soils will benefit from higher profits and more uniform income, offsetting variable crop income. It says integrated trees only cover a small part of the landscape so mallees grown for jet fuel would not significantly displace food crops. “As it is a second-generation biofuel coming from a woody source and not a food crop, it does not compete directly with food supplies,” it adds.
The report was launched during the CRC Association conference in Perth this week, with key aviation industry representatives present, including Airbus New Energies Programme Manager Frédéric Eychenne and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines Group Executive Merren McArthur.
“Virgin Australia remains committed to supporting innovative Australian research into the feasibility of aviation biofuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Australia,” said McArthur. “The results show mallee jet fuel is a more sustainable option than our current fossil-based fuel supply while also providing valuable insights into potential new supply chains.”
Added Eychenne: “The outcome of this report is very positive and supports Airbus’ global strategy of seeking the best local solutions for the development and commercialisation of sustainable fuels for aviation.”
Certified biojet from bio-oil upgrading and refining requires more research and development by IFPEN to 2020, concludes CRC, along with continued government-backed research on yield, harvest technology and farm profitability, with new plantings from 2015.