Plants to the Rescue: Aviation Industry Begins to Embrace Biofuel0

Justin Hienz | Wed Oct 19 2011

Meet the Jatropha curcas—a plant native to the tropics in Mexico and Central America. It thrives in dry areas, grows around 20 feet tall, and, oh yeah, it can power a Boeing 777 jet on an 11-hour flight from Mexico City to Madrid.

Touching down at Madrid-Barajas International Airport, an Aeromexico plane made history as the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight powered in part by biofuel. Using a blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and refined Jatropha curcas seed oil, the flight was an important step forward in the international effort to integrate biofuels into global aviation.

The aviation industry accounts for two percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions annually.

As one might imagine, propelling a commercial jet with passengers and cargo at 560 mph burns a lot of fuel and produces CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) as a result. The aviation industry released 649 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010 and accounts for two percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions annually.

Most airlines do a good job of talking about environmental responsibility, and reduced fuel consumption is certainly an industry goal across the board. Yet, at the end of the day, airlines are beholden to their shareholders, and the genuine efforts of some to reduce their carbon footprint sometimes take second seat to the real, immediate need to turn a profit.

“The raw material or feedstocks required to produce [biofuel] are in some cases expensive and limited in quantity. Industry and government recognize this and are working on technologies to improve affordability,” said Michael Epstein, Leader of Alternative Fuels at GE Aviation.

Airlines fasten seatbelts for economic turbulence

The aviation industry waxes and wanes with the global economy. After the consumer market crashed in 2009, people had less money for travel and vacation, and with decreasing sales businesses shipped less by air cargo. As a result, the aviation industry suffered heavy profit losses and struggled to remain in business. Faced with falling revenue and rising costs, air carriers looked for ways to trim expenses. The biggest culprit: fuel.

“We still have more work ahead of us to adjust the business to a world where higher fuel prices are the norm,” Delta Air Lines CFO Hank Halter said in a memo to staff. “We are aggressively pursuing additional revenues, cutting capacity where revenues have not kept pace with fuel costs, streamlining our fleet, and reducing our cost structure.”

Airlines stripped excess weight from their fleets to reduce fuel use and bought new, more fuel-efficient planes. Meanwhile, revolution erupted across the Middle East and once again the cost of oil climbed rapidly. These events, and others like it, hurt the aviation business. Despite the urgency with which the aviation industry is embracing more efficient practices and planes, profit margins remain razor thin.

Unfortunately, reduced carbon emissions do not on their own offer a sufficient reason for airlines to invest in and use renewable biofuels. Rather, for biofuel to become a standard jet fuel supplement used throughout the industry, it will need to answer two primary concerns: compliance with international regulations and a lower cost of fuel and operation.

Biofuels: All grown up

Biofuels are derived from biological materials and are carbon neutral, meaning they do not release more CO2 during combustion than they take in during their lifecycle. Ethanol, for example, can be made from corn starch or sugarcane and added to gasoline to increase efficiency. Biodiesel, often made from soybean oil, can be an effective supplement in diesel engines.

Yet extracting energy from these plant types poses a drawback: in growing plants for fuel, they compete for land and water against plants farmed for food. This is unsustainable on a wide scale, such as the scale needed to significantly augment the international aviation industry’s CO2 emissions.

Biofuel makers looked to non-edible plants able to grow in areas not fit for food farming.

Enter the second-generation biofuels. Learning from earlier efforts (the first generation), biofuel makers looked to non-edible plants able to grow in areas not fit for food farming. The Jatropha curcas plant, for example, is poisonous to humans and can thrive in stony, gravely, or poor soil where other plants cannot survive. These biofuels offer the kind of sustainability that can make a dent in aviation CO2 emission, if they are affordable.

Second-generation biofuels require high initial investment costs. As well as the technology used to create the fuel, there is requisite infrastructure for moving, storing, mixing, and distributing the product. Projects and processes take time to build. In the interim, second-generation biofuels are not yet the cheaper alternative to fossil fuels.

Even with these cost concerns, second generation biofuels offer potential. “It will always take resources and modifications to the environment to produce useful commodities such as fuel. However, second generation biofuels do that in a much more sustainable and environmentally responsible manner,” said Epstein.

In an effort to encourage private sector production and work with biofuels, the Obama Administration recently announced it would use up to $510 million to subsidize biofuels not made from corn.

“Our goal is to jump-start commercial production and to gather the information producers need to get commercial financing,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told the Wall Street Journal. “This partnership will give industry the initial support it needs.”

Global regulations cause controversy

Meanwhile, international bodies are taking action to compel lower carbon emissions.

As part of its climate policy, the European Union (EU) launched the European Emissions Trading Scheme in 2005. The scheme targets industries with significant C02 and greenhouse gas emissions, such as aviation. Starting January 2012, the EU will require airlines to buy certificates for carbon emissions, forcing airlines to reduce CO2 emissions or pay for it—this extends to non-European airlines landing at or flying from European airports.

The international reaction has been less than favorable—some countries have resisted compliance and some airlines are pursuing legal action against the EU.

Starting January 2012, the EU will require airlines to reduce emissions or pay for it.

For air carriers, regulations can be costly, but they can also spur change. The U.S. Congress passed the Energy Independence Act in 2007, which supports biofuel development and production. The goal is supplementing petroleum-based fuel with 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, nearly 60 percent of which must come from non-cornstarch sources (i.e., second-generation biofuels). Economic incentives in U.S. energy policy, such as tax credits, encourage the use of biofuels.

The private sector is also setting goals. International Air Transport Association (IATA), an international trade body for the aviation industry, is aiming for carbon neutral growth by 2020 and a 50 percent drop in net carbon emissions by 2050.

“IATA believes strongly in the future of sustainable aviation biofuels that do not compete with food crops,” said Perry Flint of IATA. “However, in order to be able to achieve industrial scale production at competitive costs, we need government policies that encourage and incentivize the private sector to get more involved, and we need governments to ensure aviation’s fair share of biofuels.”

Facing international regulations and private sector pressure, airlines will look for ways to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel use. In the coming years, second-generation biofuels and the infrastructure that supports them will become increasingly available and efficient, which should drive down the cost of supplementing jet fuel with biofuel.

“In many ways, biofuels have already changed the aviation industry by changing expectations.  Just a few short years ago, nobody thought it possible to manufacture a biofuel suitable for the rigorous environment of air transportation,” said Epstein.

While reducing CO2 and GHG emissions is a critical international effort, the aviation industry is working through a difficult fiscal period. The fuel option that best helps the bottom line will win the day. Given Aeromexico’s success flying a commercial flight across the Atlantic, widespread biofuel use in aviation may not be far off.

Illustration by Mark Weaver