Airlines Look For Sustainable Jet Fuels
(3BL Media/Just Means) -Air travel accounts for 2 percent of all emissions, but it gets a lot of attention in any conversation about climate change mitigation efforts. While Obama wants new limits on aviation emissions, the UNâs International Civil Aviation is also expected to set new limits early next year. Besides, the public wants to feel better about flying.
The use of alternative jet fuels gains media traction every now and then, and we are now in one of those moments. The New York Times has run a feature story about the topic, mainly in connection with United Airlinesâ use of farm animal waste in an upcoming flight scheduled for the summer. The airline is also investing $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy, which turns municipal waste into aviation fuel.
This is not the first time United Airlines ventures into alternative fuel. Back in 2011, the company made history when it flew between Houston and Chicago on a fuel blend that included Solazymeâs algae biofuel, the first commercial flight powered with algae. Called Solajet, it consists of a 40/60 blend of algae-based fuel and petroleum-based traditional jet fuel.
While a mass conversion to renewables by the aviation industry is a long flight away, researchers are busy looking for alternatives and techniques that could be good for the environment and also for the finances, since jet fuel is one of the industryâs highest expenses - United alone spent $11.6bn on fuel last year, according to the aforementioned NYT article.
One of the latest developments comes from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a partnership led by the University of California Berkeley that includes Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the BP. They have developed a new method to produce âeco-friendlyâ aviation fuel from sugarcane biomass.
âWeâve combined chemical catalysis with life-cycle greenhouse gas modelling to create a new process for producing bio-based aviation fuel as well as automotive lubricant base oils,â Alexis Bell, a chemical engineer with joint appointments at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California Berkeley,â said in a press statement. âThe recyclable catalysts we developed are capable of converting sugarcane biomass into a new class of aviation fuel and lubricants with superior cold-flow properties, density and viscosity that could achieve net life-cycle greenhouse gas savings of up to 80-percent,â he added.
Elsewhere, Alaska Airlines has joined forces with the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) to deepen the research into jet fuel made from forest residuals, the tree limbs and branches that remain after a forest harvest. The plan is to fly a demonstration flight next year using 1,000 gallons of alternative fuel produced by NARA.
"Developing alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals represents a significant economic challenge with considerable sustainability benefits," said Michael Wolcott, NARA co-director. "While the price of oil fluctuates, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels remains constant. NARA efforts to engage stakeholders from forest managers to potential fuel users like Alaska Airlines to lay the foundations for a bio-based, renewable fuel economy is exciting work that we believe will benefit society in the years ahead."
NARA is a five-year project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a multi-disciplinary efforts involving 22 organizations representing the industry, academia and government laboratories. Its main mission is to develop jet fuel and other bio products in the Pacific Northwest using forest residuals as raw material and assess its economic and environmental benefits.
Like United Airlines, Alaska Airlines is no novice to the renewable fuel race. Back in 2011, the air carrier flew 75 commercial passenger flights powered with a 20 percent blend biofuel made from used cooking oil. Two maiden flights took place between Seattle and Washington, D.C. and Portland. The other flights were operated by Alaska Airlines and its sister carrier, Horizon Air, covering that route and powered by same biofuel blend, over the course of a few weeks.
At the time, Alaska Air estimated the 20 percent certified biofuel blend it used reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 10 percent, or 134 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 26 cars off the road for a year. It all Alaska Air flights were powered with the biofuel with a 20 per cent blend, the company estimated it would equal to removing nearly 64,000 cars off the road or providing electricity to 28,000 homes.
The air travel industry has a huge challenge to solve before use of green jet fuel takes off in earnest. For now, efforts are sporadic and experimental, but they point to directions the industry could be going. Hopefully, some disruptive technology will crop up in the near future and accelerate the industryâs flight towards a sustainable future.
Image credit: United Airlines