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Aviation Biofuel Taking Flight

Posted by Laina Rose

Aviation Biofuel Taking Flight

The Demand is Growing, Can the Suppliers Keep Up?

The world’s airlines will carry 2.8 billion passengers and 46 million tons of freight this year. They will burn somewhere between 210 million and 220 million tons of fuel and generate 650 million tons of carbon emissions in the process.

Biofuels for aviation are growing more rapidly than any one could have predicted. It seemed like hopeful, yet very futuristic idea when it was first introduced. Today, aviation biofuels are making their way into commercial flights worldwide.KLM Biofuel

In 2009, Continental Airlines flew a flight demonstration using conventional jet fuel blended with fuel derived from jatropha and algae. A year later, a United jet flew on synthetic fuel made from natural gas. And now, earlier this month, an airbus flew from Madrid to Barcelona using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel made from the camelina sativa plant, making it the first commercial flight in the country powered by the alternative fuel, UPI.com reported. Many other first test flights using fuel derived from plants have happened recently, at least six airlines, including KLM, Lufthansa and Finnair, have now used biofuel on flights carrying passengers. Additionally, Virgin Atlantic is making a big push to use biofuel made from waste gasses, see "Virgin Atlantic To Start Using a Low-Carbon Jet Fuel".

"While some international carriers are now using biofuel, it is three to four times more expensive than conventional jet fuel", said Jimmy Samartzis, the managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability at United Continental Holdings.  When it comes to alternative biofuels, this is not a new problem. The demand is high, and the supply is still lower than needed to fuel the industry, and what is available is costly. However, the industry is rapidly growing and working to adapt to find a way to meet the need.

The oil companies that supply carriers with traditional jet fuel have yet to embrace biofuels in a major way. A host of small outfits, like Cosmo Biofuels in Malaysia, are working to develop jet fuel from various plant sources. But the process takes time and does not enjoy government support of the kind seen for biodiesel, which is used in cars.

“The technical issues are largely solved,” said Stephen Emmert, regional director of biofuel strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “What we need now as an industry is a sufficient, sustainable supply at commercially viable prices.”

Aviation biofuels, in other words, reached technical maturity surprisingly quickly, but commercially, the industry remains in its infancy. But the industry cannot afford not to look at alternatives to conventional fuels. The demand is there for those who are working to develop renewable jet fuels, with or without government incentives or foreign government penalties for carbon emissions. 

Topics: Renewable Sources, Biobased, aviation, renewable jet fuel, Aviation Fuels, Ethanol