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Striving for a greener alternative

By Hpanchal on May 1, 2012

One early afternoon toward the end of June 2011, KLM launched a Boeing 737-800 flight from Amsterdam to Paris carrying 171 passengers, fueled by a blend of cooking oil and jet fuel. It was the start of what the carrier hopes will be 200 such flights. Most important, though, it was a huge leap toward efficient, environmentally friendly aviation for KLM.

While the KLM flight wasn’t the first to use a blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel in airplane engines, the passenger service is indicative of a recent, growing trend in aviation. In January, Lufthansa concluded its own six-month biofuel trials, which had seen Airbus A321 flights from Frankfurt powered by a biofuel blend. Qantas brought Australia into the fray with the country’s first flight using fuel made from cooking oil on April 13. More recently, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have put aside their rivalries to proceed on a unified front in developing and testing alternative sources of jet fuel.

These trials and explorations signal a growing awareness of environmental sustainability in the aviation field that has been growing for the past five years. And while the tests have all been conducted on passenger flights, they nevertheless point the path forward for a greener air cargo landscape. Though acceptance of biofuels is no longer an issue and new alternative fuel sources are being approved every year, barriers to entry still remain. Regardless, the airline industry has built a critical mass and is slowly moving toward global implementation of alternative fuel sources.

Qantas, Lufthansa and other carriers have launched test flights to gain experience with biofuel and to prove that it’s a viable alternative — biofuel blends do, in fact, work just like kerosene. These airlines also get a bit of positive public relations out of the launches. The problem with these events, however, is that the tests aren’t done using a market-based pricing scheme. The cost of these small flight batches would be prohibitive if they were conducted on a larger scale. Currently, the cost of producing biofuels is the main barrier to entry into the alternative fuel world; while the demand might be there at a lower cost, the supply hasn’t caught up.

According to Boeing’s Terrance Scott, 85 percent of the cost of production is tied to feedstock — growing it, cultivating it and bringing it to market. Once producers figure out how to decrease their costs, biofuels will become more affordable, Scott explains. More research into Jatropha, Camelina and other viable biofuel sources is needed to figure out how to increase the production yield and grow these plants more economically. Until then, test flights are simply an exercise in what could be.

“We’ve now moved beyond the technical feasibility questions. We know it works; we know there are no engine issues; we know the performance values. The issue now is not technical, it’s quantity. There’s a demonstrated industry demand for these fuels, but there’s not enough to go around,” Scott says. “The challenge is, how do you increase capacity and reduce the price.”

Boeing, Scott says, moved into the alternative fuels field because of its customers, who were under pressure from a variety of sources. Astronomical fuel prices are, of course, a primary motivating factor for airlines. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as carbon goals set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, are also important factors.

The manufacturer’s ultimate goal — and one Scott thinks can be achieved with the help of Airbus and Embraer — is to have 1 percent of all aviation jetfuel from bio-derived sources by 2015. Scott says that’s around 600 million gallons of fuel made from alcohol, algae, cooking oil or whatever else is in the approval pipeline. By working together among its partners, he says, the companies have a much louder voice and will be able to push biofuels into the market.

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Submitted by anonymous on

The REAL problem is that the airline industry does not want to invest into production of jet fuel. They want the producers to take all the risk. The airlines waste their money on hedging hundreds of millions of dollars every year on the price of fuel instead of looking for ways to become self-sustainable. Due to the financial state of the airlines industry today, what bank is willing to take the risk of financing airline industry fuel contracts?

Read an article in a Canadian newspaper that Boeing was going to China for biofuels because the US was "moving too slowly". So...instead of us buying our oil from the middle east we will soon be buying our oil from the Chinese? Isn't that a breach of US national security?

Submitted by Reynier on

Joe, I suggest you check this part of the story out beorfe commenting on the pitfalls of previous biofuels projects (although I agree that many have been bogus ideas): The algae will be grown at a facility adjacent to the stacks, harvested, dried using industrial waste heat, from the cement plant and then used along with the fossil fuels that are currently used in its cement kilns The algae processing is using waste heat, which would be lost energy regardless. Also, no need for trucks/shipping as the fuel is then being consumed on site. Essentially this delays the use of fossil fuels, decreasing the rate of carbon dioxide emmisions. For every BTU of fuel generated from recaptured C02 there is one less BTU of fuel mined, so the overall carbon footprint goes down.

Submitted by Alex on

Biofuels are a joke and a scam. Does anyone rezaile that if you trap the CO2 in algae, but then process it some other processing plant (which requires energy) and use it to fuel trucks (which requires energy to get it to the trucks) and then you burn it, the CO2 goes into the air anyway, and you used MORE overall fuel by fueling the production process of the biofuel. And where did the energy to store it in algae come from? THE SUN. So it is the most inefficient solar panel in the world, essentially.If you wanted it to be good for the environment you'd throw the algae into the sea or something, not burn it for fuel. All biofuel in my opinion as a physicist is a scam. Companies can pretend to be green while polluting just as much. And don't get me started on the corn biofuels, and other grain biofuels. Again it's just solar energy, which grows a plant, and then the plant is processed, shipped, and burned while the grain prices sky rocket and people starve somewhere in the world because of it.

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