|Could algae jet fuel make aviation sustainable?|
By Carl Freer
Wind energy can power streetlights. Electric vehicles are being pushed to be a norm. Solar panels have reached consumer level, thanks to Tesla’s Powerwall. The increasing popularity of alternative, sustainable energy sources shows our collective understanding that Earth’s resources are finite, and that our planet should be treated with more respect. But who would have guessed that pond scum could one day fuel a plane?
Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported on Japanese-based Euglena Co. and their ambitious plans to create algae-based bio jet fuel in the next few years. After a decade of manufacturing a nutritional supplement out of green algae, which has proven to be a multi-million dollar business, Euglena is now going to explore partnerships with All Nippon Airways and other corporate giants to “commercialise bio jet fuel by 2020,” according to Euglena’s president, Mitsuru Izumo.
This is also in line with the Japanese government’s plans to power commercial flights with bio jet fuel by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games rolls around.
Why we need biofuels in aviation
Biofuels can also be made from other types of biomass, such as sugarcane and waste wood. While biofuels have been around for a number of years already, aviation biofuel is a growing industry that is attracting plenty of attention (and investment dollars).
The argument goes: while burning fossil fuels increases carbon emissions, growing plants that will eventually become fuel serves to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was recently quoted as claiming that selling advanced biofuels to the Department of Defense was one way to boost the economy.
The problem of pollution from aviation becomes much more serious when you look at the numbers. Air travel produces over 600,000 tons of CO2 in a year, representing 2% of human-induced CO2 emissions and 12% of emissions from all transport sources. The demand for air travel is expected to increase by 4-5% per annum over the next 20 years, and an estimated 1300 international airports will be needed by 2050; sustainable flying needs to be made a priority.
Going green to save some green
According to the Motley Fool, switching to alternative fuel sources may not just be a PR strategy for airlines – soon, they may be required by law to reduce their carbon emissions through alternative fuels.
A United Nations Agency called the International Civil Aviation Organization will be implementing limitations on carbon emissions for the commercial aviation industry over the next few years, and the US Environmental Protection Agency announced in June that final ruling on aircraft emission regulations will be released in 2018.
To line up bio jet fuel suppliers before the ruling passes, FedEx has agreed to a 3 million gallon per year deal with US-based Red Rocks Biofuel. Airlines are jumping on the bandwagon as well: Southwest Airlines is also working with Red Rocks, while Alaska Airlines is teaming up with Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance to advance the production of bio jet fuel made from wood.
The big names in bio jet fuel
On the provider side – Red Rocks started construction this year on a 15 million gallon per year refinery in Oregon, which will convert approximately 175,000 dry tons of woody biomass into at least 15 million gallons per year of renewable, liquid transportation fuels, according to Biofuels Digest. The firm has received $70 million from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Navy to help build its $182 million refinery, as part of an effort under the Defense Production Act aimed at building 100 million gallons of cost-competitive renewable jet fuel capacity.
In Europe, French-based O&G Total and five partners have ambitiously committed to producing 200,000 metric tons of biodiesel and bio jet fuel per year from one million metric tons of biomass by 2020. The BioTFuel project seeks to process three metric tons of biomass such as straw, forest waste and dedicated energy crops per hour, and the test phase is expected to be completed in 2017.
In the future…
Several big players in the aviation industry have taken decisive steps towards “cleaning up” their act, while suppliers are ramping up production and boosting capacity in anticipation of demand. However, cost may still be a deterrent.
As just one example, the US Congressional Research Service reported in 2012 on how the US Defense Department purchased alternative fuels for US $29 per gallon, nearly nine times the cost of petroleum, and algae-made fuel for US $149 per gallon from San Francisco-based Solazyme in 2009.
But once costs can be brought down through advances in technology and production, government subsidies or competition from other producers, bio jet fuel could represent a revolution in aviation. Soon, we could be flying green – literally.
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