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.
This aggressive target will take three to five regional biofuel facilities. Scott thinks its achievable, especially considering the amount of progress that has been made so far. Internationally accepted fuel specifications were only amended to include biofuels less than a year ago, so the alternative fuel industry is actually in its infancy. And since no manufacturers were going to set up shop before the fuels were approved, many of the producers are just getting into the game.
“We’re really in the very early stages of this,” he says. “The first percent is the hardest percent. If we can get to that first percent, we know how to get to three, five, seven and so on.”
There are currently three technology pathways for aviation fuel. The jet fuel specifications were the first to be expanded; use of synthetic material was approved in 2010, and in 2011 the use of oil seed was introduced. Scott sees in the pipeline the use of alcohol, cellulostic materials and even woody biomass. Once approved, all of these sources will function the same as a fuel drop-in. There is no need to have one single source of biofuel.
“You’re going to see additional pathways coming forward,” he says. “Basically, as long as it meets the performance specification, it all performs the same regardless of where it comes from. It’s not about the feedstock, it’s about the technology processing.”
Pilots for LAN first flew an Airbus 320 on a blend of refined vegetable oil in March, marking the first step in what officials think will be a march toward a sustainable future for the airline. According to Enrique Guzman, LAN’s environment manager, the airline’s partnership with producer Air BP Copec market a first for both companies and a significant milestone in the development of biofuels in South America.
LAN officials had been carefully studying biofuel feedstock since 2011. Though they ultimately chose vegetable oil for this flight, Guzman says they could have easily picked a different biofuel source. Fuel blends made from algae, Jatropha, Camelina and halophytes were under consideration. The hope is to expand the tests and ultimately offer flights fueled by a blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel. But one major obstacle, in addition to price, is supply.
“The region is not yet ready to provide or refine enough raw materials to provide a sustainable biofuel source, in order to use biofuel in a profitable way,” Guzman says. “That is precisely why we had this first flight, in order to further explore and to give support to all the existing initiatives, organizations or leaders who are taking the first steps to create a sustainable biofuel industry for the future of aviation in the region.”
But ultimately, it all comes down to cost. The test flight for LAN was important, but was conducted at significant extra expense. Until the price goes down, flights will be limited, he says. “Today, biofuels are between six and eight times more expensive than traditional jetfuel,” Guzman says. “We hope the region is able to develop the raw materials and also the technology that will permit the price to be at a competitive level.”
In today’s fast-moving world, 2006 seems like ages ago. One reason it took five years between acceptance of biofuel as a legitimate way to power airplanes and the start of testing is the different requirements that exist for aviation fuel. Scientists were making biofuels long before 2006, but first-generation alternative fuels designed for cars are very different than second-generation biofuel blends destined for cargo planes. Thomas Roetger, IATA’s assistant director of environmental technology, points out that automotive fuels like bioethanol or biodiesel — something that is chemically very different from regular diesel — don’t have the kerosene-like characteristics needed for jet fuel.
Last summer, biofuels for aviation were finally deemed appropriate and safe. Before that, only limited test flights could be flown with a biofuel mixture. And with an open opportunity to fly with greener fuels, airlines have jumped at the chance.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm from the airlines, who really wanted to engage themselves in green technologies and to show that they are capable of doing environmentally friendly flights,” Roetger says.
That currently certified biofuels are close cousins of kerosene is important. Alternative fuels are certified for use as drop-in products, meaning that airlines can replace up to 50 percent of their fuel blend with biofuels without harming the engines or fuel systems. The amount of biofuels used in flights could eventually increase, but for the time being, he says 50 percent is likely to be the tipping point. From an operational standpoint, fueling stations at airports can easily integrate biofuels into their systems.
“The technological challenges are more or less mastered; of course, we are always looking for alternative solutions that offer chances to have alternative production paths that are still more efficient or cheaper,” he says. “The main challenge is really the economic and business challenge. We need investors now in that industry.”
Governments around the world are getting behind the greening of aviation, but the relationship between the alternative aviation fuel industry and those in power hasn’t always been so friendly. At first, airlines were an afterthought when people mentioned biofuels. Everyone was focused on cars and other applications, says Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative. His organization’s membership includes more than 60 fuel companies, 17 U.S. government agencies and a few international partners in Brazil and Australia.
Altman has helped turn aviation from an also-ran into the leading voice of biofuels. The industry then set a goal of achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020. Through his organization’s work, aviation biofuels have now been made a priority in the U.S. President Obama recently put in place a $510 million framework to develop biofuel facilities.
“Our goal was to take an aviation industry that basically had been ignored as a candidate for sustainable alternative fuels and to move it from being an afterthought to the cutting edge,” he says.
Airlines are a good choice for biofuels, Altman says, because of the industry’s reliance on liquid-based fuel — “There’s discussions of electric cars and all kinds of other alternatives for ground transportation; we don’t have any,” he says — and a built in fueling infrastructure already developed by airports. He recalls a session during the recent World Biofuels Markets conference when attendees were asked if aviation was a clear first customer for biofuel products. More than 68 percent of the attendees said yes. In 2006, Altman says, those same producers most likely would have come to a different conclusion.
Support is growing for alternative aviation fuels, and Altman says the next step is to secure commercial purchasing agreements for flights. This isn’t to say there isn’t merit in the test flights, which are important steps in the movement toward alternative fuels. Operationally, however, these flights shouldn’t be any different than any of the million flights carriers undertake using traditional fuel.
“There should be nothing different because this is totally drop-in fuel. However, you’ve got to show me,” Altman says. “The operations people are in the show-me mode; they’re not in the that’s-a-nice-theory mode.”
He wants to move beyond simple tests conducted in small batches and achieve a financially viable structure for alternative fuels. In fact, one of his main goals for the next two years is making biofuels affordable. His organization has set a goal of seeing 10 commercial biofuel operations in some stage of execution by 2013.
“The important thing this year will be to see a real commercial arrangement on practical buying terms. That’s doable,” he says. “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.”