Aviation Biofuels: A Future Necessity

Aviation is an industry which is coming under increasing pressure from the ever rising costs of fossil fuels and the politics of carbon emission reduction and taxation. Given that the aviation industry is currently completely dependent on fossil fuels and that solutions to land based transport problems such as electricity and hydrogen cannot apply there is an increasing interest in the development of new forms of biofuel.

At 2:25pm on the 6th of October more than 230 passengers departed from Birmingham Airport with Lanzarote as their destination. This flight was notable as it was part-powered by biofuel. One of the planes engines was running on a newly developed aviation biofuel – a 50/50 mix of standard Jet A1 fuel and “Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids” (produced using cooking oil). No modification to the engine was required to allow it to run on the biofuel. This biofuel was supplied to TUI Travel UK and Ireland by the Dutch company SkyNRG. This new biofuel has been approved as sustainable by both the WWF (Worldwide Wildlife Fund) and the Roundtable on Sustainable ‘Biofuels (an international monitoring group for alternative fuels). However the problems lingering on the horizon for aviation have not yet dispersed. This biofuel is significantly more expensive than standard aviation fuel and it is difficult to see how cooking oil could ever be produced in enough quantities to supply worldwide air travel. This is without even broaching the subject of the damage increased biofuel production could inflict on world markets and the price of food.

However TUI Travel insists that biofuels derived from cooking oil are only being used as a demonstration of how biofuels can be used in aviation; with other biofuels produced from sources such as algae expected to hold more long term potential. Never the less it has been announced that daily flights using this biofuel will begin in 2012.

Reactions to this test flight were somewhat mixed. Captain Phil Copnall, who piloted the flight, commented that: “The flight landed on schedule and the reaction from our customers on the flight was overwhelmingly positive.”

Christian Cull, Communications Director of TUI UK & Ireland remarked:

“We realise that we won’t please everyone, and that at present the aviation biofuel supply chain is not perfect.

“We are sincere in our commitment and are proud to be flying with biofuel. Whilst these are early days, we are in this for the long haul because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

The company released the following official statement:

“The aviation industry fully supports the move for all modes of transport to more sustainable energy sources.

“Whilst we are in a transition phase, Thomson Airways [a subsidiary of TUI Travel] believes that sustainable liquid fuel should be prioritised for aviation as there is no near term alternative, such as electric or hydrogen for ground-based vehicles.”

Aviation Minister Theresa Villiers:

“The British government believes that sustainable biofuels have a role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly in sectors where no other viable low carbon energy source has been identified – as is the case with aviation.”

The Biofuels Campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, Kenneth Richter reacted:

Biofuels won’t make flying any greener – their production is wrecking rainforests, pushing up food prices and causing yet more climate-changing emissions.

“The government must curb future demand for flights by halting airport expansion, promoting video conferencing, and developing faster, better and affordable rail services.”

On Tuesday the 11th of October Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin Atlantic planes will be using a newly developed “green” aviation fuel. The proposed fuel – which will be produced in partnership with the New Zealand based biofuel company Lanzatech – will be manufactured from waste gases produced during the industrial production of steel. These waste gases will be extracted, fermented and then put through a process of chemical conversion. Currently such gases are burned up during steel production and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Lanzatech indicated that they estimated that their process could be applied to 65% of the worlds steel mills and could possibly also be used in metals processing and and chemicals industries.

The necessary technology is currently being piloted in New Zealand with demo flights expected to be carried out within the next 12 to 18 months. Lanzatech chief executive Jennifer Holmgren announced that she was “confident” that commercial production would be up and running in China by 2014. Virgin Atlantic plans to initially use this form of biofuel on it’s routes from Heathrow to Delhi and Shanghai before eventually rolling it out across the rest of its fleet.

During the announcement of his plans Sir Richard Branson stated:

“We were the first commercial airline to test a biofuel flight and we continue to lead the airline industry as the pioneer of sustainable aviation.

“This partnership to produce a next generation low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve.

“With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable and, with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting.

“This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially introduced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel.”

Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner Richard Dyer released the following statement:

“On the face of it, it does look promising in that they are getting round the issues of biofuels and land use. It is a very long way from commercial use. It has got to be very safe and cheap enough for airlines to be interested in using it.”

The potential biofuels hold for the aviation industry is obvious.

As Sir Richard Branson observed on his blog biofuels could “turn aviation from a dirty industry to one of the cleanest”. However, there are numerous challenges to come. The fuel proposed by Virgin Atlantic appears to hold huge potential but at this point in time it remains just that; potential. Other more developed biofuels are problematic for the worlds food supply as they compete for the same arable land. But if such problems can be overcome then a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved.

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