Biofuel Market Is Close To a Tipping Point

After years of talking about the potential of biofuels and conducting sporadic demonstration flights powered partially by alternatives to kerosene, experts in the field of sustainable aviation says that the industry could be moving toward a tipping point where meaningful volumes are produced and consumed.

While there remains a long way to go before sustainable aviation fuels can be scaled up enough to make an impact on the airline industry’s rapidly expanding carbon footprint, a partnership approach involving airlines, OEMs and fuel producers, together with a more favorable regulatory framework, could help to accelerate the process.

Flying less often – the approach advocated by environmental groups and even some industry insiders – remains unpalatable to airlines. But with public pressure growing, particularly in Europe where climate-change protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion are fairly routine, airlines that are seen to be transitioning away from fossil fuels could be rewarded in the longer term.

A handful of airlines have invested in aviation biofuel producers or have committed to buying specified volumes of low-carbon fuels. In 2015, United Airlines announced a $30 million investment in household waste-to-biofuel producer Fulcrum BioEnergy; Cathay Pacific has likewise agreed to take an equity stake in Fulcrum, and JetBlue Airways will soon start taking delivery of a renewable jet fuel derived from non-food plant oils via a 10-year offtake agreement signed in 2016 with SG Preston.

In addition, Qantas Airways will start using SG Preston’s biofuel to power its Los Angeles-Australia flights at a 50/50 blend from 2020, after signing a 10-year agreement with the Philadelphia-based producer in 2017. In the UK, Virgin Atlantic is working with LanzaTech to bring fuel derived from the waste gases of steel mills into regular use in its aircraft, while British Airways has entered a partnership with Velocys to develop a series of facilities that convert household waste into renewable jet fuel.

Meanwhile, in January, following three years of research, Etihad Airways became the first carrier to operate a commercial flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam – a Boeing 787-9 with GEnx-1B engines ­powered partially by biofuel derived from salicornia plants grown in saltwater in the desert. The salicornia is fertilized by the same fish and shrimp that are used to provide food for local people, and wastewater is diverted to a mangrove forest, which researchers say “provides valuable carbon storage before the naturally filtered and treated effluent is discharged back into the sea.”

 

“We’ve seen the first flights, but these one-offs are now moving into structural programs, says Maarten van Dijk, CEO of Netherlands-based SkyNRG. “Over the last 4-5 years, airlines have been using the buying power of their balance sheets to enable new production capabilities.” SkyNRG supplies sustainable aviation fuel to its co-founder and shareholder KLM as well as more than 20 other airlines.

“There is no one silver bullet, but this shows the realization of future-thinking airlines that they need to get involved in building up the supply chain,” van Dijk says.

On top of the $30 million equity investment in Fulcrum, United agreed to jointly develop up to five biofuel factories located near its hubs and to purchase at least 90 million gal. of sustainable aviation fuel per year from Fulcrum for a minimum of 10 years.

United used 4.1 billion gal. of fuel last year.

Boeing’s next goal is to see green diesel – a biofuel made from vegetable oil, waste cooking oil and waste animal fats, which is already in use in ground transportation – certified for aviation. In 2014, the airframer operated a test flight with its EcoDemonstrator 787 powered with a 15% blend of green diesel in its left engine.

A small but growing number of airports now offer sustainable jet fuel through their main fueling infrastructure. Oslo Airport became the first in early 2016, when it announced that through collaboration with Air BP, Norwegian airport operator Avinor and SkyNRG, all aircraft landing in Oslo, could have biofuel delivered from the airport’s main fuel farm via the existing hydrant mechanism.

“I would challenge the connotation that [development of the sustainable jet fuel market] has been slow. We have seen significant progress in a relatively short period of time,” says Sean Newsum, director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “We’re talking about providing a product that is competitive with petroleum fuels, with their century-old infrastructure and industry. That is no small feat.”

 “We are approaching a tipping point,” he says. “This is a very long-term project for the aviation industry, but it can and will happen.

“The groundwork has been laid.”

 

Kerry Reals

Kerry Reals is a UK-based aviation journalist with 15 years’ experience covering all aspects of the airline and aerospace sector for a variety of industry publications. She is a freelance contributor to Aviation Week & Space Technology, Aviation Daily and Air Transport World, focusing on the European airline industry, with an emphasis on how the sector is working to improve sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint.


 

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