Navigant Research Blog

Lufthansa Leads Biofuels Hunt

Mackinnon Lawrence — May 6, 2014

Lufthansa announced last month that it has teamed up with U.S.-based Gevo to research the blending of alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuel with conventional kerosene for use in commercial flights.  While it’s not surprising that ATJ will be on the fast track for testing and ASTM approval for use in commercial operations, Lufthansa’s support of the ATJ biojet pathway demonstrates that it’s conducting an intensive search for a viable advanced biofuels conversion pathway.

Lufthansa is among the leading airlines that have sought partnerships with emerging companies at the vanguard of biofuels innovation.  On paper, the German carrier accounts for more than 40% of the biofuels purchased by commercial airlines since 2008.  It was the first commercial carrier to operate biofuels-powered flights, launching an initiative to fly more than 1,000 commercial flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt in 2011 powered by biofuels derived from jatropha, camelina, and animal fats.

Succumbed

In some respects, Lufthansa has become the canary in the aviation biofuels coal mine.  It abandoned the Hamburg-Frankfurt route in 2011, citing difficulty finding a sufficient volume of biofuels.  The move presaged a dramatic decline from 31,000 biofuels miles flown in 2012 by commercial carriers to just 3,000 in 2013.

Commercial Airline Biofuels Miles Flown by Flight Type, World Markets: 2008-2013

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

Among the industries actively seeking alternative liquid biofuels, the aviation sector has been one of the most aggressive in pursuing its sustainability goals.  While laudable, this significantly narrows the potential feedstock pool for an industry anxious to lower operating costs, hedge against future oil price spikes, and improve its carbon footprint.  The drop-off in biofuels miles flown reflects the challenge of pairing a low-cost conversion technology with an abundant and sustainable feedstock.

At least 75% of global biofuels production today is derived from just two feedstocks: cornstarch in the United States and sugarcane in Brazil.  The remaining share is produced from other food-based feedstocks like soy, canola, palm, and coarse grains converted to first-generation ethanol and biodiesel.  Despite a relative abundance, both ethanol and biodiesel lack key performance attributes of kerosene-based jet fuel, making them nonstarters for use in jet engines.

Just two fuel pathways are approved for commercial use in the aviation industry today.  The first, FT-SPK, is a gasification and catalytic process (Fischer-Tropsch) that was put into use by the Nazis during World War II and in South Africa under apartheid.  The second, HEFA (or Bio-SPK), involves hydrotreating oils derived from oil-bearing plants, animal fats, and used cooking grease.  This latter pathway has supplied nearly 100% of the fuel burned in the nearly 600,000 miles of biofuels-fueled flights that have occurred since 2008.

A disproportionate share of the biofuels consumed by airlines during this period has been produced from used cooking grease, a feedstock typically discarded as waste.  While produced in abundance in urban areas, the relative volume of used cooking grease represents just a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 90 billion gallons of kerosene-based jet fuel consumed annually by commercial airlines and militaries around the world.  It was never the silver bullet envisioned by the aviation industry for offsetting petroleum use.

The Search Continues

While many commercial carriers remained focused on participating in demonstration flights and establishing commercial routes, Lufthansa refocused its efforts on scouring the globe for technologies with the potential to operate at an industrial scale.

In 2012, the airline inked a deal with Australia-based Algae.Tec to build a large facility in Europe based on a modular design that uses shipping containers.  Although the algae industry remains an outlier in the crowded advanced biofuels technology landscape, along the algae frontier, Algae.Tec is an even greater outlier with a potentially game-changing platform.

Lufthansa’s recent deal with Gevo to pursue ATJ offers the airline another potential pathway to industrial-scale biojet production based on fermentation.  With the lion’s share of global biorefinery infrastructure based on fermentation platforms, Gevo is pursuing a capital-light approach based on the retrofitting of existing conventional ethanol refineries.  Assuming ASTM approval of ATJ, Navigant Research’s recent Aviation and Marine Biofuels report projects that 180 million gallons of ATJ will be produced globally by 2024.

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