Progress on alternative jet fuels "stunning", says aviation industry, but commercialization is now the major challenge

Progress on alternative jet fuels "stunning", says aviation industry, but commercialization is now the major challenge | CAAFI,Solazyme,UOP,ATAG

(photo: Solazyme)

Mon 2 Aug 2010 – Environmental executives from Boeing, Airbus and IATA lined up at the recent Farnborough Air Show to proclaim rapid progress in the development of alternative sustainable jet fuels but warned of the challenges ahead in bringing them to commercial scale. Producers and end users came together during the show to put on a series of briefing sessions on biofuel developments. “Stunning is the only word I can use to describe how much progress has been made in the last three years,” said Paul Steele, IATA’s Director of Aviation Environment and head of the industry coalition Air Transport Action Group. “We have seen a huge amount of activity in driving this forward. Certification has been the prime focus to begin with because safety is a key issue. We believe commercial biofuel flights are now three to five years away – some may say sooner than that.”


Billy Glover, Boeing Commercial Airplane’s Managing Director for Environmental Strategy, said the common wisdom just five years ago was that biofuels for commercial aviation were impossible.


“Now we have got through most of the technical barriers and fuel standards are in place for up to 50% blends of drop-in Hydrotreated Renewable Jet (HRJ) fuels,” he told journalists at the air show. “We have a lot of sustainability accreditation work going on and commitments from airlines for off-take agreements. We are really ahead of where anybody could have predicted.”


Glover believes a one percent penetration of biofuels by the middle of the decade was achievable.


However, Paul Nash, Head of New Energies at Airbus, estimated the commercialization of biofuels was seven to 10 years away, which was too slow, he believed, and the process would need to be speeded up. He said Airbus had set demanding, high-level targets of a 30% industry take-up of biofuels by 2030, with an interim goal of 15% by 2020 for alternative fuels. Tough targets were required to drive the development strategy forward, he said, and called for more work on common sustainability analysis, cross-industry collaboration and more government support with financial incentives.


IATA’s Steele pointed to the recent study carried by consultants E4tech on behalf of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change that showed a best case scenario for a full replacement of jet kerosene by biofuels by 2035 and a worse case of 40% replacement by 2050. “In reality, I think it will be somewhere between the two, and we in the industry will be trying to move things forward as quickly as we can.”


Having overcome many of the main hurdles posed by running aircraft engines on drop-in biofuels, Richard Altman, Executive Director of the US-led Commercial Alternative Aviation Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), believed major challenges lie ahead elsewhere.


“The biggest single obstacle right now is not technical – it’s the finance industry’s willingness to take risks,” he said. “There has been good support for pilot plants but there have been problems over bigger production projects with the financial institutions on issues like pricing differentials and loan guarantees. However, the good news right now is that there have been ongoing discussions by the airline industry with the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy on how to overcome some of the problems. We don’t necessarily have the solutions but we do have their attention.”


Steele agrees that scaleability is the main impediment. “So far we have seen test bed quantities with a gradual move towards pilot plant quantities. What we have seen with other industries is that as you scale up there are significant cost benefits on a per unit basis, so over time the price of biofuel will move much closer to, if not below, existing jet fuel, especially as the price of jet fuel is expected to rise over the mid-term.”


David Isaacs, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at US biofuel producer Solazyme said part of the answer was long-term off-take agreements with end-users. “They would send out a powerful signal and help drive our ability to secure funding.”


Solazyme’s technology, which uses algae to convert biomass to oil using indirect photosynthesis, once scaled up to full commercial scale production, could supply around 50 to 100 million gallons per year of cost-competitive jet biofuel at the $60-80 a barrel range, according to Isaacs. Solazyme already has in place contracts with the US navy and air force to supply its jet biofuel product.


Said Steele: “At IATA we are galvanizing the airlines into making some strong signals and commitments on future purchases of these fuels so that people recognize there is a market here and will encourage investment into this industry. We are beginning to see some interesting signals from financial institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks that they are keen to get involved.


“The industry is very focused on the use of biofuels but we can’t do it all alone and governments have to do their part. There has been a huge amount of impetus through the partnerships that have taken place in the US. The involvement of the military is helping drive this forward and also people like the Department of Agriculture getting on board to help programmes.”


Steele is critical of progress in Europe, where, he said, there was a need for “some real joined-up thinking”.


“Although we are seeing activity, it’s not connected and delivering as it should be,” he said. “We urgently need more R&D funding to help scale beyond the pilot plant stage to the first commercial level projects, finding ways to drive public/private partnerships and making sure we have the right fiscal frameworks in place to encourage investment. Importantly, particularly here in Europe, we need to have a coordinated transport and energy policy.


“Other forms of transport have options for alternative sources of energy but aviation right now really only has biofuels that it can benefit from and we need full support to move forward on this.”


Jim Woodger of UOP, which has been involved in refining 200,000 gallons for the airline biofuel test flights carried out so far, predicted demand for jet biofuels will rise from around 45,000 barrels per day (around 1.89 million US gallons per day) in 2015 to 720,000 (over 30 million gallons) by 2025.


Current global jet fuel demand is around 5 million barrels per day, or 5.8% of total global oil consumption. A paper published in April by Mohammad Mazraati of OPEC forecasted that even with current trends of fuel intensity improvements by the aviation industry, jet fuel demand could increase by a further 2.7 million barrels per day by 2030.


Woodger said that Bio-SPK/HRJ fuels should be certified for use in 50% blends for commercial use by the end of the year and revealed UOP was looking at creating a 100% renewable jet fuel sometime in the future by taking solid biomass to create pyrolysis oil, which is then upgraded to make the aromatic hydrocarbons in the jet fuel range. Aromatics, which are naturally present in conventional jet kerosene but not in biofuels, are required for aircraft engine seal swell. Woodger said a 100% renewable jet fuel had already been tested on the Boeing Hydroplane.


Following the successful Qatar Airways gas-to-liquid (GTL) commercial flight between London and Doha last October, Paul Nash disclosed that the first Airbus biofuel test flight would likely take place in November as part of a ‘value-chain’ project with Brazilian carrier TAM and other partners.


He said Airbus was working on further projects with around 10 airlines in different regions. “We prefer to do them with the airlines themselves as they have access to their governments and they have an awareness of the local infrastructure and the farming community.”





IATA – Alternative Fuels


Boeing – Biofuel Resource Center

Airbus – Alternative Fuels



E4tech – ‘Review of the potential for biofuels in aviation’ report (pdf)



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