The Sky is the Limit for Sustainable Aviation Biofuels

September 4, 2018

Posted By Jeffrey Hatcher

Sustainable jet fuels are considered critical to the aviation sector’s long-term growth. As the International Air Transport Association forecasts the 3.8 billion air travelers in 2016 to double to 7.2 by 2035, the aviation sector is one of the few overall sectors that are expected to increase their GHG emissions. Meanwhile, escalating fuels costs and environmental costs are squeezing the aviation sector and driving innovation in jet fuel alternatives. One of the most promising solutions to sustainable jet fuels is to use forest harvest residuals to make aviation biofuel and co-products. According to the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), one dry ton of woody biomass can make approximately 45.6 gallons of biofuel for airplanes. Also, federal agency NASA found that using biofuels reduces particle emissions in their exhaust by as much as 50 - 70 %.

Policy developments in aviation biofuels have accelerated recently. The California Air Resources Board is in the process of including alternative jet fuels under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, generating financial incentives for producers. British Columbia and Oregon have issued low-carbon fuel requirements that include sustainable aviation fuel and other U.S. states are considering adopting similar laws. The European Union is actively exploring new sustainable aviation fuel subsidies. This signifies a true commitment to the targets set by some of the industry regulators.

Several initiatives are driving the increased interest, including the global regulatory framework set by ICAO, European initiatives, various national measures, and individual biofuels projects undertaken by companies and organizations. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulates aviation emissions by developing and monitoring international standards. The ICAO is currently aiming to drive a 2% improvement in fuel efficiency by 2020 compared to 2010 and to stabilize the net carbon emissions from the aviation sector from 2020 onwards. Additionally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set its own emission reduction goals, which similarly aim for carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards, but also aim to reduce overall emissions by 50% by 2020, from a 2005 level.

Aircraft emissions are expected to grow by 50 percent by 2050 as demand for air travel increases.

Canada’s recent launch of its “the Sky’s the Limit Challenge”, aims to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry by spurring development in the bio-based and ‘green’ fuel supply chain. The competition is just another sign that the aviation industry is preparing to be part of the sustainable transport fuels future.

The Green Aviation Fuels Innovative Competition

The first of the two competitions announced by Natural Resources Canada is the Green Aviation Fuels Innovative Competition, which will award $2m each for four teams to develop an innovative production concept for economical and environmentally stable aviation fuel, with the winner receiving a $5m award.

The Cross-Canada Flight Competition

The second competition will award $1m to the first competitor that fuels a Canadian commercial flight with a minimum of 10% blend of made-in-Canada biojet fuel. Of these, Air Canada and WestJet have volunteered to be the carriers for this competition.

Meanwhile, throughout North America and the world, many airline carriers have expressed an interest in collaborating with developers and purchasing biojet fuels when they become commercially available.

Despite that aviation fuels are only a small part of the global fossil fuel demand, demand for jet fuels in the aviation sector has been increasing significantly. Thus, the emissions from the aviation sector are expected to grow in the absence of continued efficiency measures and renewable fuel development. According to the IEA, domestic aviation demand is expected to grow most in USA, China, Brazil and Russia, while international aviation grows especially in hubs in the ASEAN countries and Middle East

Is it affordable?

While taxation of aviation fuel can be challenging in a globalized industry, access to financing, such as the awards and other mechanisms offered by the Natural Resources Canada and other organizations will help mitigate the risks of R&D investments. Additionally, strong governmental support would facilitate reaching these goals.

Because aviation fuel (mainly kerosene) typically follows the crude oil price, development of a bio-based jet fuel would reduce volatility risks and price increases in the future. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, the most likely scenario is one in which the oil prices increase after 2020. However, production costs for aviation biofuels are still much higher than the traditional kerosene costs. While kerosene today costs less than $600/ metric ton today, production costs of aviation biofuels from new production units cost $1200 to $1800 / metric ton when using the Fischer-Tropsch method or hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Every $10 per barrel increase in the costs of conventional aviation fuel costs the US Air Force over $600m per year

The US Air Force, as one of the world’s largest users of fossil fuels, has said that every $10 per barrel increase in the costs of conventional aviation fuel costs the US Air Force over $600m per year. Therefore, the US Air Force aims to enable its entire aircraft fleet to run on a 50:50 blend of synthetic jet fuel and conventional kerosene.

Is it possible?

Though light aircraft can run on bio-based ethanol or FAME, a synthetic or bio-based jet fuel must be able to be a ‘drop-in’ replacement for conventional fuels in current engine systems, with a similar density, freeze point, flash point characteristics and importantly, energy content for long haul commercial flights. Various demonstrations have proven that modern jet engines can run on bio-based fuels. In fact, synthetic fuel burns more cleanly than conventional kerosene, with fewer noxious emissions. Despite this, the energy density is still lower than conventional fuel, making it necessary to hold large volumes of the fuel to match the distances flown with conventional fuel. All these fuels will need to meet ASTM specifications. When these components are blended with petroleum jet fuel at allowable levels, they can then be re-categorized as D1655 fuels, the standard for aviation turbine fuels, and are indistinguishable from petroleum-based jet fuel.

What’s been done?

At the 2018 European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition in May, The Business Aviation Guide to Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuels was announced. This is focused on raising awareness and adoption of available and emerging alternative jet fuel options in the U.S. and Europe.

Already in 2013, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) joined with other industry groups and government stakeholders to launch the "Farm to Fly 2.0" initiative, which is aimed at developing viable, sustainable biofuel fuel supply chains in the U.S. to support an annual production goal of 1 billion gallons of alternative-sourced jet fuel use by 2018. The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a public-private partnership, is dedicated to demonstrating the aviation industry’s commitment to environmental stewardship by creating a carbon-neutral air fleet by the year 2020 through collaborations along the entire value-chain.

Big players, such as Gulfstream Aerospace, uses a 30/70 blend of low-carbon, drop-in renewable fuel and Jet A to power its fleet of customer support aircraft, as well as company flights. The manufacturer even used this fuel while testing its G500 and G600 business jets. Another example is Virgin Atlantic together with General Electric Aviation, which has flown a Boeing 747 from London Heathrow to Amsterdam on biofuel.

Other actors involved include the joint industry-regulatory Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI), which recognized the demand from light aircraft for unleaded fuels in the aftermath of the great recession. Rabbit Aviation became one of a select number of authorized distributors for 94 octane unleaded fuel (UL94) produced by Swift Fuels. In 2016, AltAir Fuels earned certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) to become the first U.S. source for continuous production of renewable diesel and jet fuel at a con-verted oil refinery in Paramount, CA. The company subsequently received RSB sustainability certification for its jet fuel in 2018.

Unfortunately, there have been some failures in the commercial biojet fuel projects along the way as well, such as Kior and Solena, though these have been attributed to problems other than lack of technology or industry acceptance.

What’s next?

Now more than ever, national and local governments are aggressively pursuing carbon-reduction initiatives, and multi-stakeholder groups are working together on initiatives to advance a more sustainable aviation industry.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is working with RMI-CWR and SkyNRG to explore long-term financing solutions to secure supply of sustainable aviation fuel. Geneva Airport is building on the RMI-CWR and SkyNRG "Airport Approach" to cover the price premium for future biofuel supply, which will be guaranteed by refiner Neste.

Air BP is supplying commercial jet biofuel at Halmstad Airport in Sweden. Red Rock Biofuels secured financing and offtake agreements with FedEx Express and Southwest Airlines for 3 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel per year between 2017 and 2024. Virgin Australia is working with Gevo and Brisbane Airport to establish routine delivery of sustainable aviation fuel to that city. United Airlines has invested directly in Fulcrum to supply up to 90 million gallons of fuel derived from municipal waste feedstock annually. JetBlue has signed a 10-year agreement with SG Preston to obtain over 300 million gallons of biofuel. Amyris is supplying Airbus with sustainable aviation fuel for aircraft deliveries departing from Toulouse, France.. Last year, Alaskan Airlines flew from Seattle to Washington, DC, to become the first commercial flight using the world’s first renewable, alternative jet fuel made from the remains of logging and thinning from prescribed forest health management operations. The list of airline agreements with producers of sustainable aviation fuels is growing.

It’s exciting to see how the forest industry can contribute to a critical step in curbing global warming through avoiding the rise of global CO2 emissions from the aviation sector. However, there is still a long way to go before this can be realized. A lack of commercial scale production facilities and distribution outlets, and resultant higher consumer prices (versus petroleum-derived jet fuel) are still a barrier to increased utilization. Additionally, biofuels for aviation are subject to much tighter rules than for any other form of transport

One biofuel plant would create more than 1,900 new jobs.

The current coal and natural gas based synthetic fuel made through a Fischer-Tropsch method produces more emissions than traditional kerosene, thus using bio-based feedstocks and waste would reduce the overall CO2 emissions by up to 80%. And while controversy about the food vs. fuel debate lingers, new opportunities for by-products of the forest industries and waste streams can play a role to mitigate these risks, and standards for supporting wood-based biofuels will follow strict sustainability and life cycle emissions criteria for acceptance. According to a study by NARA, one biofuel plant would create more than 1,900 new jobs, including biomass harvest, transportation and conversion into fuel, emphasizing the fact that forest based biofuels could play a role in strengthening rural economies, increasing America’s energy security, and reducing aviation’s environmental impact.

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Jeffrey Hatcher

Managing Director of Indufor North America

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