Crops, seawater and jets

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In a report highlighted this month, Pricewaterhouse was demonstrating that innovation capabilities could make the difference the US aerospace industry, as some breakthroughs can provide clear and durable competitive advantages.

Among such game changing innovations, biofuels were said to offer some of the greatest prospects. According to a forecast by Renewablejetfuels.org, by 2025, biofuels will replace fossil jet fuel by 40% to 70%.

In 2003, fuel cost made up 14% of airlines’ average operating costs, while in 2012 it rose to 33%. Understandably, from an airline’s point of view, fuel is the number one operating cost target. If biofuel currently seems more likely to be a communication tool for airlines to appear “green friendly”, in the future Airlines will aim at reducing their dependence from diminishing fossil fuel reserves.

The aviation industry has even set itself a target of capping net aviation emissions from 2020; and most ambitiously, to halve aviation’s CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 emissions. To achieve these targets, the transition in terms of converting from present fossil fuels (Jet A and Jet A1 kerosene) to renewable and sustainable biofuels shall be significant. On Jan. 22, Boeing announced that – while teaming up with the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) in the UAE – it has made “breakthroughs in sustainable aviation biofuel development, finding that desert plants fed by seawater will produce biofuel more efficiently than other well-known feedstocks”.

According to the aircraft manufacturer, tests are going to be proceeded to support biofuel crop production in arid area such as the UAE. Director of the SRBC, Dr. Alejandro Rio declared: “The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks, which has potential applications in other parts of the world.” The SRBC is funded by Boeing, Etihad Airways, Honeywell UOP and Safran.

On Jan. 18, Etihad Airways conducted a demonstration flight with a 777-300ER (Extended Range) powered in part with both locally-produced and locally-refined sustainable aviation biofuel. On Jan. 19, Boeing, Etihad Airways, the Masdar Institute and others had launched BIOjet Abu Dhabi: Flight Path to Sustainability, an initiative to advance biofuel research, feedstock production and refining capability.

In line with state directives, Etihad Airways has sought to support the development of lower-carbon renewable fuels. The biofuel was partially converted from plants by French energy group Total and refined into jet fuel by Takreer, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC). UAE is now among a handful of countries that have produced and flown on their own aviation biofuel, which emits at least 50% less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel over its lifecycle.

According to IATA, the worldwide aviation industry consumes some 1.5 to 1.7 bn barrels of Jet A-1 annually (2010), equal to around 247 million tons annually. As a comparison, Shipping consumes around 360mn tons of bunker oil annually.

Consequently, aviation and shipping would require up to almost 300 mn tons of biofuels for a 50% blend (or double as a 100% biofuels based energy source; however presently not foreseen in the near future…).

The biofuels market for aviation alone (based on a 50% blend) is estimated to reach between $58 trillion – $83 trillion annually based on a crude oil price of $70/barrel and $ 100/barrel respectively. However over time, this might change as mass production of biofuels could lower the price, while fossil fuel might fluctuate but in the long-term should increase as the world runs out of crude oil and the demand for low carbon/emission-free fuel increases.

Furthermore, the demand for biofuels would certainly double or triple if the requirements of shipping and heavy road transports were to be included and/or the aviation industry uses only fossil fuels.

In 2008, Yves Galland, CEO of Boeing France had published a book regarding the environmental challenges related to the aviation industry. He was already alluding to testing on biomass, algae and jatropha performed by Boeing, notably in Africa. Since 2011, Boeing has also built an extensive research partnership in Brazil, where biofuel is a big issue. Through its own local R&D centre, Boeing has been progressively involving major players like Embraer, GOL Airlines, the Sao Paulo State Scientific Research Federation (Fapesp). “We chose Brazil because of its strengths in biomass and this type of fuel stock”, Boeing International Chief Executive Shep Hill told Reuters at the time.



Of course, archrival Airbus is not idle on that front. The European OEM is also part of numerous joint-ventures on biofuel all over the World. In Europe it has the “European Advanced sustainable aviation fuel Flightpath,” involving the European Commission, leading European airlines and key European sustainable aviation fuel producers, notably in Spain. But Airbus also does research with local partners in Canada, Australia, Qatar, Russia and China. Earlier this month, Airbus announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre (AMIC), Malaysian Industry- Government Group for High technology (MiGHT), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), French research centre CIRAD and BioTech Corp, to evaluate local solutions for sustainable biomass fuel production in Malaysia. The sustainable biofuel war has just begun.