Aviation takes baby steps toward sustainable fuels

An Airbus A321 aircraft using Biojet A-1 Total/Amyris, a biofuel produced from an innovative sugar-processing technology, seen a
An Airbus A321 aircraft using Biojet A-1 Total/Amyris, a biofuel produced from an innovative sugar-processing technology, seen at Le Bourget airport near Paris

The air transportation sector is turning slowly toward sustainable fuels as part of the global fight against climate change.

But adoption has been delayed due to a lack of incentives and low oil prices.

"It's very urgent to develop these alternative fuels," said Michel Wachenheim of the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA).

"There is no reason to be satisfied with the situation."

Despite an expected increase in airline traffic, the aviation industry is the first commercial sector to commit itself to limiting carbon emissions within 20 years, through a binding mechanism.

But to achieve that goal, the industry must look at a variety of options.

Even partially replacing with sustainable biofuels can make an impact. That is one of the four options favored by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which convened a panel of experts on Wednesday and Thursday in Montreal to address the dilemma.

Lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft, optimized flight plans, or turning off jet engines while on the tarmac also would help to cut emissions.

But meeting the 20-year commitment will require widespread adoption of alternative fuels that produce less over their life cycle than jet fuel produced from petroleum.

The ultimate goal is to make a fuel-equivalent to jet fuel, but those processes still are under development or at an early stage of industrial production.

Hydro-treated oils, a process of converting gases into hydrocarbons, or fermentation processes such as the one being done by biotech Amyris with French oil firm Total, produce sustainable biofuels, according to the experts gathered at the ICAO.

Starches and sugars

These fuels are made from biomass such as starches, sugars, oils and lignocellulose—in other words, plants. The use of seaweed is still in the research stage.

Nate Brown, in charge of the US Federal Aviation Administration's alternative jet fuel initiative, said more work needs to be done before reaching large-scale production.

In addition to coming up with alternative fuels with "equivalent safety-performance," the costs must be comparable to that of conventional fuel, he said.

A reliable supply is crucial for airlines, and proven environmental benefits also are key, he said.

With prices for conventional fuel remaining low over the past three years, due to low crude oil prices, energy companies do not have an incentive to invest billions of dollars in new technologies.

But even so, this year 25 airlines will operate more than 5,000 flights using jet fuel mixed with sustainable alternative fuels—up to 50 percent in the case of hydro-treated oils—on a trial basis.

Industry officials say there also will to be a need for stronger political will world wide to encourage the use of .

Gerard Ostheimer a scientist with Sustainable Energy For All (Se4all), launched by the United Nations, a higher price per tonne of carbon could be one of the levers that would push development of these biofuels.

In addition, "We must put in place policies that reward (using) fuels with reduced carbon intensity."

At their last triennial assembly, the 191 ICAO member states adopted a global mechanism for offsetting emissions from international aviation and the objective by 2035 of, at worst, maintaining emissions at 2019 or 2020 levels.

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© 2017 AFP

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Feb 13, 2017
By all means, airlines should continue to be more fuel efficient. They have been doing this on their own throughout their existence due to capitalist market demands. No need to apply a false moral domain into it. They certainly shouldn't make bio-fuels a key component of their strategy either.

Bio-fuels are the single most destructive 'solution' being forced into society today. It takes some of the most productive land out of food production, puts poor land into production that is not sustainable in the long term, encourages irresponsible land management practices, is increasing erosion, and finally making food higher priced for the poorest countries.

Apparently in our rush to save them from drowning due to increased sea levels it has been determined that it is better to starve the poor masses.

Feb 20, 2017
Try as we might, it is really difficult to improve upon the energy volume, density, and ease of storage of hydrocarbon fuels.

The other thing that hydrocarbon fuels have going for them is that the engines have over a century of design experience and refinements.

So it is not unreasonable to attempt to use renewable resources to manufacture a hydrocarbon fuel. Unfortunately, though he doesn't support his case well, FactsReallyMatter's assertions about using food crops to make biodiesel have been confirmed by numerous government and environmental groups.

A better solution might be to farm genetically modified yeast or algae for this purpose.

Feb 20, 2017
I'm curious about certain details concerning biofuels. So far, I've heard of biodiesels being used to power jet aircraft, but the high melting point of these fuels even when mixed with petroleum jet fuels begs to ask the details regarding modifications to the aircraft. Does the aircraft require heated fuel lines and tanks to keep from falling out of the sky? Does ground equipment also require heated infrastructure in the winter? If these fuels are alcohol based, what kind of efficiency loss are they predicting? Can a 777 flying on bioalcohol make it to Asia from the US without refueling?

Feb 23, 2017
Does the aircraft require heated fuel lines and tanks to keep from falling out of the sky?

No more so than existing jet fuels. Diesel, Kerosene, and Jet-A are all very similar fuels. Yes, there is a hazard that they can turn to a waxy gelatinous goo at the sorts of cold temperatures you'd see when cruising at high altitude. The aircraft systems already have features for dealing with this problem.

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