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Biofuels: Propelling the World toward a Low-Carbon Future

April 26, 2012

The aviation industry regards sustainable and affordable biofuels as vital to reducing its carbon footprint and improving its environmental credentials. Efforts are underway to develop and increase the use of alternative fuel for aviation. Cristina Haus F'81, Executive Editor of Jet Fuel Intelligence for Energy Intelligence Group, believes use of low-carbon fuels by commercial and military aircraft will pave the way for broader use of advanced biofuels in other sectors of the economy. In her talk at The Fletcher School on “Aviation Biofuels: Propelling the World toward a Low-Carbon Future,” Haus discussed huge strikes made by the aviation industry since 2005 to test and certify new fuels for aviation use. Motivation for this drive comes not just from their goal for carbon neutral growth, but also due to nagging concerns about supply security as oil firms exit the downstream refining business and unprofitable refineries are shut down.

The US Air Force started the campaign to launch alternative fuels as a means to reduce its dependence on imported petroleum and improve energy security. The US Department of Defense initially targeted Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology as a viable short-term option, a process for converting coal and natural gas liquid fuel. This process was used in South Africa during the apartheid regime and in Germany for fueling the war effort in the 1940s. Haus noted that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio did the break-through testing for both FT fuels and then synthetic fuels made from biomass. Both types of alternative fuels have now been approved for commercial and military use in a 50-50 blend with conventional jet fuel made from petroleum.

Haus pointed out that the Air Force has since abandoned its case for FT fuels, since they are too expensive to develop on a commercial scale and due to the fact that carbon sequestration efforts by the Dept. of Energy have been scrapped. “The problem with FT fuel is that it takes $2-$3 billion to build a plant.  Carbon sequestration is important for producing this fuel because it is more polluting on a life cycle basis than petroleum fuel.” Fuels made from non-food crops and vegetable oils as well as algae and industrial waste gases look like a more promising option in terms of scaling up to commercial quantities, but financing remains a huge barrier. Within the Department of Defense the Navy has now taken the lead in promoting these fuels, and will demonstrate its Great Green Fleet which runs on 50% biofuel blends this summer in Hawaii.

All of these advanced biofuels bypass the problems with ethanol, which Haus believes has had disastrous economic and social consequences by siphoning more than 40% of the US corn crop into the fuels sector at a time when millions of people around the world are starving and farmers are struggling with high fuel and feed costs. “The problem with ethanol is that it is corrosive; it cannot be put through a pipeline, so it has to be trucked. The new so-called ‘drop-in fuels’ can be transported through conventional pipelines and put into existing infrastructure, bypassing all the logistical problems of ethanol distribution. 

Haus said that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has made a strong case for low-carbon fuels with a strategy to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2050. This has become the airline industry’s license to grow at a time when the sector has become an easy target for criticism, even though it accounts for only 3% of global C02 emissions. Airlines are also lobbying for improved air traffic management through satellite-based air traffic management systems which streamline routes, cutting fuel use and emissions. Use of biofuels can also reduce emissions charges now that airlines are included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, since biofuels are not liable for those charges.

Haus reminded the audience that the airline industry has improved its fuel efficiency more than any other sector in the last twenty years due to rising bills for jet fuel. For years fuel accounted for just 12% airline operating costs;  now the share is anywhere from 30%-50%, with low-cost carriers having the highest share of fuel expenditure. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner which comes into service this year is 20% more fuel-efficient than older models largely because airline customers insisted on energy saving as a key design parameter. Now airlines are driving the shift in energy toward low-carbon fuels as a means to ensure supply security. This is largely because in the short term they have no alternatives to liquid fuels unlike road transport, which have a menu of solutions such as electric vehicles and compressed natural gas.

-Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD candidate F13