Last week, Qantas launched Australia’s first test flight using a blend of biofuels, making the carrier part of a trend that has seen test flights by Lufthansa, LAN Airlines and a host of other carriers throughout the world. According to Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, these flights are important steps in the quest to promote alternative fuels, but these carriers need to start conducting biofuels business at market prices to really get the alternative-fuels market started.
“These are not commercial purchasing agreements. They’re not being done at prices that would be commercially viable,” Altman said. “The most important step to me would be the reaching of an agreement on fully commercial terms.” He added that such an arrangement would “puncture a hole in the whole idea that this is not affordable.”
These tests prove that support is growing for alternative aviation fuels, but Altman says more needs to be done. He wants to move beyond simple tests conducted in small batches with high biofuel prices and achieve a financially viable structure for alternative fuels. In fact, one of his main goals for the next two years is making biofuel prices practical. His organization has set a goal of seeing 10 commercial biofuel operations in some stage of execution by 2013.
That Altman even has this goal reflects a drastic change in the biofuels industry. Six years ago, the aviation industry wasn’t taken seriously as a viable candidate for biofuels. “We were viewed as unaffordable — a polluter who frankly didn’t care,” he said, explaining that the qualification process for aviation biofuels is significantly more demanding than the standards for automotive and other biofuels. “Our goal was to take an aviation industry that basically had been ignored as a candidate for sustainable alt fuels and to move it from being an afterthought to the cutting edge.”
Of course, one of the main barriers to entry, and the reason test batches are small and targeted, is supply, but Altman also hopes to soon see the certification of new biofuel pathways for the aviation industry. Currently, only three types of alternative fuel have been certified to be used as a 50-50 blend with traditional fuel, but Altman thinks alcohol-based fuel and fuels from other feedstock could soon be available for aviation use.
“The important thing this year will be to see a real commercial arrangement on practical buying terms. That’s doable,” he said. “Having at least a couple of those this year on the way to multiplying that next year, I think is certainly something we’re looking forward to.”