Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia attract international interest in developing homegrown jet biofuels
Wed 22 Mar 2017 – A year after issuing a joint Request for Information (RFI) from parties interested in supporting the development and production of sustainable aviation fuel in the region, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia say they have had strong interest both locally and from abroad. The airlines have now completed an extensive review of more than 30 responses from organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and the United States. When announcing the RFI, the airline partners said that while the aviation biofuel development was accelerating internationally, it was not the case in their region. A roadmap report published in 2011 by the Australian government science research agency CSIRO found that by 2020 a 5% bio-derived jet fuel share could be possible in Australia and New Zealand, expanding to 40% by 2050. Despite both airlines having engaged in a number of early alternative fuel initiatives, progress so far has been slow however.
Despite Air New Zealand selling off its remaining shareholding in Virgin Australia since the RFI was issued in March 2016, the two airlines remain committed to continuing with their trans-Tasman alliance. Following the completion of their RFI, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia say they will now work with short-listed companies “on strengthening the commercial case for investment.”
Lisa Daniell, Air New Zealand’s Head of Sustainability, reported the airlines had achieved key objectives in testing market readiness and gaining a better understanding of potential supply opportunities.
“The RFI has helped stimulate industry dialogue on the production of sustainable aviation fuel in the Australasian region,” she said. “Importantly, the process has also greatly expanded our understanding of the technologies and processes involved and the potential timeframes to scale up to the volumes required.”
A world-first use of sustainable aviation fuel, Air New Zealand carried out a two-hour test flight in December 2008 that used a 50/50 blend of fuel made from jatropha oil sourced from Africa and India in one of the four engines of the Boeing 747. Following the flight, the carrier said it was aiming for sustainable biofuels to make up a significant proportion of its jet fuel needs by 2013 (see article).
Virgin Australia too has had ambitions to be an early adopter of sustainable fuels, with involvement in three initiatives.
It was part of a University of Queensland led project to undertake a detailed analysis of a potential renewable jet fuel industry in the state from three biomass sources – sugar cane, pongamia and algae.
In 2011, it joined a consortium that planned to use fast pyrolysis technology to process malleees, a eucalypt tree that can be grown sustainably in many parts of Australia, and develop a commercial-scale production facility in Western Australia. That same year, the airline also entered into a partnership with Australian biofuel company Licella, which aimed to use a water technology based process to produce high-quality biocrude oil from a wide range of biomass sources, including agricultural and farm waste. Licella said at the time it was looking to produce around 500,000 barrels a year of its oil by 2016.
Following the results of the RFI, Virgin Australia said it remains optimistic about the potential of biofuels to achieve significant carbon emission reductions in the medium-term.
“There is clear interest and potential to produce sustainable aviation fuel in this region, and we will now undertake further detailed exploration in order to reach significant commercial scale,” said the airline’s Head of Sustainability, Robert Wood.