Cleantech Market Intelligence
Aviation Biofuels Start to Take Off
In November the U.S. Senate voted 62-37 to strike language from the annual defense appropriations bill that would have prohibited the Department of Defense (DOD) from buying alternative fuels if they cost more than conventional petroleum-based fuels. Estimates of commercial aviation biofuel prices are around $5 to $7 a gallon, while conventional petroleum-based fuel is around $3 per gallon. The DOD is the largest consumer of oil in the world and in recent years has been a leading advocate and investor in advanced biofuel development. Had the restrictive language been permitted, it would have been a crippling blow to the domestic and international aviation biofuel industries, grounding their encouraging recent advances globally.
Unlike petroleum-based fuels, biofuels have many feedstocks that can originate from almost anywhere. The costs of distributing a specific biofuel over a wide area, however, make any specific biofuel less competitive against petroleum-based competitors that have better price points and distribution networks. Therefore, the standardization of one biofuel from one feedstock across the globe is unlikely. Rather, many biofuels from varying feedstocks will emerge in regional markets.
Aviation biofuels add another variable in that the purpose of aviation is to travel to different regions of the world where departure point and destination may not have the same biofuel supply originating from the same feedstock. The present issue, though, is finding the most sustainable feedstock at the most competitive price, something many are trying to do across the globe. Below, a roundup of aviation biofuel initiatives in selected countries.
In late May, United Airlines, Boeing, the Chicago Department of Aviation, the Clean Energy Trust, and Honeywell UOP created the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative (MASBI). The Midwest offers the largest potential feedstock for biofuel development in the country. The initiative is meant to evaluate challenges in biofuel development as well as potential Midwestern feedstocks. A report on initial conclusions of varying feedstock viability is due later this month.
In late August, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China announced that it will collaborate with Boeing on refining waste cooking oil into jet fuel. China produces 29 million tons of the waste oil while consuming 20 million tons of petroleum-based jet fuel annually. Boeing claims price parity can be achieved within 10 years. In addition, by 2020, the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority expects 30% of the country’s jet fuel consumption to be met by biofuels.
The long-time leading producer and consumer of sugarcane-based biofuels for the automotive market, Brazil is now taking steps to enter the aviation market. In mid-2011 Boeing announced a partnership with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer to assess potential jet biofuels. In April 2012, Boeing expanded its depth in the region by establishing Boeing Research & Technology-Brazil. The center will be an innovation hub for public organizations, private sector companies, and universities to collaborate on an assortment of aerospace technologies including biofuels.
The National Research Council of Canada flew the first civil jet on 100% unblended biofuel in early November. The jet was powered by biofuel created from a genetically engineered Ethiopian mustard seed produced by Agrisoma. The seed will now be grown on 6,000 western Canadian acres on behalf of 40 commercial farmers.
Other significant advances in aviation biofuels are occurring in 18 other countries using a variety of feedstocks, from Camelina in Spain to woody biomass in New Zealand. Most of these developments are in their initial research phases, and any significant penetration of biofuel into the aviation fuel supply chain is still distant. The future of aviation biofuels is not a sure thing; however, it is conceivable to consider that airplanes will eventually fly around the world using sugarcane grown in Brazil, Ethiopian mustard seed grown in Canada, or waste cooking oil produced in China.