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Aviation Industry Hangs Its Future on Biofuels

by John M. White |

Aviation demand for biofuels is bursting at the seams. Hemmed in by emerging certifications, a petroleum-based distribution network, and lack of supply, the industry is stuck on petroleum fuels for now, but not by choice. Pressure to integrate more biofuels into the supply chain is palpable: oil price increases, oil price volatility, oil scarcity, greenhouse gas emission regulation, and increasingly, corporate social responsibility commitments. The future of the aviation sector is dependent on its ability to pivot away from petroleum-based fuels to alternative sources of energy, and they must do it quickly.
One caveat: while demand may be substantial, no one knows for sure if supply can keep pace, which makes statements from aviation experts at the World Biofuels Markets taking place in Amsterdam this week all that more interesting. According to reports out of Amsterdam, aviation experts project that within a decade, passenger planes will be flying mostly on jet fuel made from plants — camelina, jatropha, flax, marsh grass, etc. — as airlines decouple from oil markets to reduce cost and uncertainty. This statement is true insofar as airlines will be using increasing quantities of biofuels. The key issue that remains: ‘how much?”


Major test flights have already been completed — Japan Airlines, Virgin Airways, Air New Zealand, and KLM — which suggests that most airlines want in on the act. The test flights have shown that “Bio-SPK,” or biomass-derived jet fuel, actually performs as well or better than petroleum-based jet fuel. Studies have also shown that the life cycle emissions associated with Bio-SPK is considerably lower than petroleum-based fuels. ASTM, an international standards setting organization, is likely to certify 50 percent Bio-SPK blends with petroleum jet fuel this year, which would open the floodgates of expanding production of renewable jet fuel. So theoretically, demand will only be tempered by available supply. But land use has remained a thorny issue for biofuels, which makes ramping up production of Bio-SPK-ready feedstocks all the more challenging. The graph below from Enviro-aero shows the relative land use demands of various aviation jet fuel feedstocks: Land Use Biofuels For Aviation Some fear aviation biofuel demand would hasten the destruction of tropical forests (ILUC) and the conversion of cropland from food to fuel (food v. fuel). The Global Forest Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups, states: Dependency on agrofuels will lead to faster deforestation and climate change and spells disaster for indigenous peoples, other forest-dependent communities and small farmers. While the aviation industry has primarily been focused on sustainable biofuels to date — jatropha and camelina — it is unclear what certification will do in terms of fueling the aviation sector’s appetite for large quantities of biofuels. The pressure to protect the bottom line from uncertainty in the oil markets and emerging aviation GHG emissions regulations from the EU is substantial. Emerging sustainability standards, like the one being developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, will play a roll in channeling demand towards sustainable feedstocks. And since airlines are large targets, exposed to the scrutiny of the public, the industry will likely tread softly to avoid initiating a public backlash. What does this mean? Look for non-food feedstocks like camelina, jatropha, waste, and algae to be the top contenders for the aviation sector’s future plans.

About the Author

Mackinnon Lawrence is editor & publisher of Biomass Intel and a principal consultant with Biomass Advisors.

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