Airbus establishing renewable jet fuel plant in Brazil

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Airbus, TAM Airlines and a group of specialist companies including BP are working to establish a bio-kerosene jet-fuel processing plant in Brazil, aiming to gradually substitute fossil fuel in aviation with biofuel.

A major biofuel milestone was accomplished on November 22nd when Brazil’s largest airline TAM Airlines and Airbus performed the first biofuel flight in Latin America, using an Airbus A320 aircraft, Airbus said in a statement.

The fuel used was based on oil from the Jatropha plant, which produces high yields of good quality oil. It may yield more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean and more than ten times more than that of maize, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The group of companies driving the biofuel initiative is led by Curcas, which specialises in Brazilian renewable energy project development, and the Brazilian biofuel producer, Brasil Ecodiesel. In parallel, Airbus and AirBP – the jet fuel distribution unit of BP – are providing their support to the project.

The project will use a variety of biomass sources, such as the Jatropha plant, which will be grown in Brazil. The processing plant should start operations in 2013 with initial processing capacity of 80 000 tonnes per annum of the fuel.

Bio-kerosene is in the final stage of approval by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to be blended up to 50 percent with regular jet fuel when used in commercial flights.
“Airbus is bringing together farmers, oil-refiners and airlines to spearhead the commercialisation of sustainable biofuel production in Brazil and worldwide,” says Paul Nash, Airbus head of New Energies. “As well as analysing the suitability of potential biofuels for aviation, Airbus is also supporting life-cycle and sustainability projects to ensure that any CO2 emissions-reducing solutions have a positive ‘social’ impact and do not compete with local resources including land, food or water,” he added.

The initiative, which began in 2009, involved TAM acquiring sufficient Jatropha-based oil to conduct the A320 demonstration flight. The Jatropha grains produced by farmers throughout agricultural areas in Brazil, were refined through an oil extraction process and exported to the US, where it was processed into bio-kerosene by UOP LLC (a Honeywell Company) to make a 50:50 blend with regular aviation kerosene.

Curcas’ CEO Rafael Abud said, “We are working on an integrated collaborative approach by putting together strong partners from the aviation and the biofuels segments with the purpose of developing a fully integrated ‘value-chain’ in Brazil, from plant sciences and feedstock development to the distribution of the fuel at the airports”.
“In this initial phase we will conduct all studies necessary to verify sustainability and economic viability of producing bio-kerosene. This project strengthens the Brazilian leadership in biofuels and will produce relevant environmental and social benefits”, he added.

Brasil Ecodiesel’s CEO José Carlos Aguilera said, “The bio-kerosene market is a reality and promises significant growth potential, especially since the European Union has included aviation as an important element for global carbon emission reductions. Our participation in this pioneering project is aligned with our plans for diversifying our biofuel portfolio”.

There has been a lot of interest around the world in the use of biofuel to power aircraft, especially since the air transport industry contributes 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Airbus is not the only company exploring the use of biofuels, as many of the biggest airlines are looking at alternative energy sources. Flight International reported that Qatar Airways has launched a Biofuel Platform consortium in January, with involvement from Airbus. Boeing is in the process of setting up a biofuel research institute in Abu Dhabi, Flight International said.

Meanwhile, other airlines have flown aircraft using a biofuel and jet fuel mix, including United, KLM, Qatar Airways, JAL, Continental Airlines, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic, the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) reports.

The military has also expressed interest in aviation biofuels, particularly the United States Air Force, which aims to acquire half of its domestic jet fuel from domestically derived alternative sources by 2016. In a recent test in August, the US Air Force flew a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III using jet fuel blended with biofuel derived from animal fat and synthetic fuel derived from coal, the US Air Force reports.



Proponents of biofuels argue that they are renewable and can help fight climate change because the growing plants take up as much carbon dioxide from the air as the fuels made from them emit when burned, Reuters reports. However, critics such as Friends of the Earth argue that there is a risk of biofuel crops infringing on land that could be used for growing food and driving up food prices.