Flying high on biofuels  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Giles Parkinson at The Climate Spectator has a column on interest in biofuels (and electric vehicle adoption) from the airline industry as it contemplates a world where liquid fuels are in shorter supply - Flying high on biofuels

Don’t be surprised if airlines such as Qantas and Virgin, and big manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, put in large orders for the first fleets of electric vehicles. They have a special interest in seeing the EV industry succeed: because the more vehicles that are plugged into sockets, the more fuel there is to fly planes.

It’s not that the airline industry is facing a Mad Max-style fuel crisis, but clearly the price of oil is going up. Supplies from alternative sources such as tar sands are heavier, and so will be more difficult, and more core costly, to turn into jet fuel, and carbon costs will also have an impact. So if tens of millions of electric cars can be plugged in by 2020 – as some optimistic forecasts would have us believe – then that leaves extra capacity for the aviation industry to find its own alternatives.

A new report released this week by the CSIRO, with the backing of the aviation industry, predicts that Australia is uniquely positioned to provide for one third of its transport fuel needs from a range of biofuel feedstocks. Land transport accounts for most of the demand – aviation is only 15 per cent – so if most of the personal transport system can plug into the grid, then home-grown biofuels could potentially provide for all of the country’s aircraft fuel needs. Even without the EV factor, existing and new non-food biomass fuels could provide 46 per cent of the aviation fuel needs of Australia and New Zealand by 2020, and 100 per cent by 2050. ...

So far there have been several test runs – by an Air NZ Boeing 747, a US Air Force F18 “green” Hornet, a Dutch Air Force Apache Helicopter – that have proven various bio-fuels. The US defence forces have set ambitious targets to replace jet fuel with biofuels – an issue of energy security as much as cost – and the commercial industry intends to follow in its wake, although at a slower pace.

“Many people thought it would take decades to develop these technologies, but we already know it is possible to fly with biofuels,” says Ian Thomas, the head of Boeing Australia. Thomas says the future of the industry – and anticipated future sales of 32,000 aircraft worth an estimated $3.6 trillion in coming decades – depends on the industry’s ability to develop these fuels, as well as designing lighter and more fuel efficient aircraft, and improving flight management programs.

The CSIRO report says urban waste is probably Australia’s most available and cheapest option at the moment. Lignocellulose – wood and stems from trees and crops – is the most abundant, but they face high refining costs. A range of potential new “exotic” sources are identified, with the most interesting being Pongonia, an inedible oil-yielding legume tree; algae, salt water and coastal plant varieties known as halophytes and a short rotation tree species known as coppice. But the costs of all these are relatively uncertain, and the industries will take some time to develop.

Like energy solutions, biofuels are likely to come from a portfolio of feedstocks. The major airlines are already pursuing various technologies. “There are no silver bullets here, just got silver shotguns,” says John Valastro, the head of risk and resilience at Qantas, which has already signed agreements with aspiring producers of fuels from urban waste, and from algae, and is looking to build its first refinery in the next couple of years.


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