Biofuel targets at risk

More than 20 airlines have trialled biofuels since they were approved for use in 2011.

Used cooking oil, algae, jatropha, camelina and even human waste are all being refined into Jet A substitutes, yet

Boeing’s goal of reaching one per cent biofuel use, industry-wide, by 2015 has already been missed and its revised target for 2016 is probably unattainable.

Yet if progress is not made soon, IATA’s ambition of carbon-neutral growth for airlines from 2020 will likely prove impossible.

Unfortunately even a ‘green’ airline such as KLM, which has conducted hundreds of passenger flights with blends of biofuel and Jet A, still buys more than 99 per cent of the latter for its fuel requirements.

The three challenges of biofuel are producing it in quantity, at the right price and in a sustainable manner.

As yet no feedstock satisfies all three criteria. Used cooking oil from the food industry is sustainable but complicated to source in volume; the jatropha and camelina plants, though suitable for poor soil, raise questions about land use; and algae is proving expensive to refine.

For the present Boeing is pinning its hopes on green diesel, already produced in relatively large volumes and at an attractive price through subsidies in the US and Europe.

Production capacity totals 800 million gallons per year for road use, and if a quarter of that was devoted to jet fuel it could meet Boeing’s one per cent biofuel target.

But questions about sustainability persist. Although lifecycle emissions of green diesel are estimated to be 50-90 per cent lower than fossil fuels, the fuel still relies heavily on virgin palm oil, the cultivation of which is mainly responsible for the levelling of Asia’s rainforests.

“Fuel sustainability is perhaps the most sensitive issue to get right as the negative consequences of a company marketing a fuel with less than ideal credentials would be disastrous,” says Jeremy Tomkinson, CEO of NNFCC, a biofuels consultant.

To find out more about advances in the biofuel market pick up the next edition of ATE&M.

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