As with other industries, the airline business has more than enough reasons to pursue viable alternatives.
Fuel became the largest component of operating costs for U.S. airlines in 2006, part of a relentless price spiral in energy prices that challenged the profitability of the industry. In addition to volatile oil prices, possible caps on carbon emissions have also prompted the sector to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a more secure and affordable energy source.
That said, price competitiveness remains a key criteria.
"This fuel alternative would work if it's equal to or below what airlines are paying today," says Julius Maldutis, airline analyst and president of Aviation Dynamics. "At this stage of the game, I don't know what that cost is gonna look like."
In the near term, estimates put the cost of biofuels at $80-100 a barrel, says Boeing's Glover, though that figure could slide to $40 over time. That's not dissimilar to oil prices, which have ranged between $32 and a record high of $147 in the past year.
Exploring Different Technologies
As the aviation community develops alternatives, the idea is to alter the fuel not the aircraft.
"If you look at aircraft, they are in essence long-life assets; they can be around for 15-30 years," says Maurice. "And if you can have a product that is in essence a drop-in, you get the benefit very rapidly."
Right now, these fuels fall into two categories—organic and synthetic—and are created through one of two processes.
Thus far, only one fuel—a synthetic-based one manufactured in South Africa—has been approved by the international standards organization, ASTM.
The Fischer Tropsch process, developed during World War II when the allies cut off Germany's oil supplies, uses coal, natural gas or biomass, which is chemically converted into petroleum substitutes.
"In the near term as far as getting initial capacity up, Fischer Tropsch is more practical," says Maurice. "In the longer-term, the more attractive option from an environmental perspective would be hydrogenation."
Fuels developed from plants (using the hydrogenation process) have the same carbon emissions as kerosene, but the environmental benefit comes when they are grown.
"It's a zero add of carbon dioxide," says Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at the ATA. "It's just recycling it."