Progress on aerospace biofuels gaining momentum

  • 23-Feb-2010 06:20 EST
Boeing biofuel pic - MCM size.jpg

The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Project in Abu Dhabi is taking an evolutionary approach that combines saltwater farming, mangrove forests, and the cultivation of salicornia (a species of halophytes) as potential sources for sustainable jet fuel. (Boeing)

The aerospace biofuels movement advanced another step forward with February’s announcement that British Airways and Washington, D.C.-based Solena Group plan to build what they say will be Europe’s “first sustainable jet-fuel plant” near London.

The biofuel will be derived from a process that can convert a variety of waste materials into aviation fuel and that can provide life-cycle greenhouse gas savings of up to 95% compared to fossil-fuels-derived jet kerosene, according to the companies. They say the plant will convert 500,000 t of waste per year into 16 million gal of green jet fuel—equivalent to, in terms of environmental benefit, taking 48,000 cars off the road per year.

British Airways says it will begin using biofuel from the plant in 2014. The plant will supply exclusively to British Airways, an airline spokesperson said.

Advances in biofuels are taking place on the other side of the Atlantic as well. By 2013, there could be several biofuel plants of various size and technology approaches up and running in the U.S., according to Richard L. Altman, Executive Director, Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). He told AEM that the biofuel used in recent and current test programs undertaken by airlines are from small “pilot lots” of a few thousand gallons.

A key test of scale-up will come from purchases that were announced by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, according to Altman. He said the agency last fall agreed to purchase 600,000 gal of biofuel from multiple sources for U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy programs. “While that hardly represents a production volume,” he said, “it does represent significant scale-up from what we had previously.”

CAAFI is a coalition of airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy producers, researchers, international participants, and U.S. government agencies. Altman said its role is to serve as a catalyst for the biofuel movement by maintaining R&D and other types of roadmaps to prevent gaps from developing in the supply chain. “The key for us is to make sure the technology development is expedited,” he said.

CAAFI’s goal is to pave the way so that about 10 functional biofuel plants will be in process in the U.S. by the year 2013. Typical volume at those plants would be about 6500 barrels/day, according to Altman. He said that at those volumes, the plants would be able to supply about 1.5% of the total U.S. aviation fuel supply, which is about 120 billion gal a year. Such volumes would put industry on course to reach its “real goal” of achieving carbon-neutral growth for aviation in 2020, he said. “Depending on the content of the fuel—what it yields on a life-cycle basis—we think that’s achievable if we have sufficient success models in the 2013 time period.”

A recent piece of good news, according to Altman, is President Obama’s recent policy announcement that gives the aerospace biofuel efforts a “favored position” in terms of the $1 billion in loan guarantees available for U.S. biofuels research. A critical effort by CAAFI is to get better terms for the loans, said Altman.

To the extent the announcement of purchase agreements and new R&D programs are signs of advance, the biofuels effort is making progress. Recent examples are the Air Transport Association of America’s December announcement that 12 of its airline members had signed a memorandum of understanding with AltAir Fuels LLC and Rentech Inc. for future supply of alternative aviation fuel. AltAir would build a plant in the state of Washington for annual production of 75 million gal of jet fuel and diesel fuel derived from camelina oils or comparable feedstock. Rentech’s proposed plant in Mississippi would involve production of 250 million gal/year of synthetic fuel derived principally from coal or petroleum coke, with some biomass added.

In January, Boeing announced that it, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Etihad Airways, and Honeywell’s UOP unit would establish a major research institution and demonstration project in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Project will use integrated saltwater agricultural systems to support the development and commercialization of biofuel sources for aviation and coproducts.

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