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'Green' Fuels to Power More Airplanes — and Soon

Expect to see biofuels powering more flights in the coming months, as next-generation “green” fuels get the green light to take off.

“Biofuels are the next best step to displacing fossil fuels,” says Dave Hurst, senior analyst with cleantech research firm Pike Research. “What biofuels have going for them is that it’s the easiest solution to the current problem.”

Soldiers from Task Force Currahee, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, recover bundles of fuel that were air delivered to Forward Operating Base Waza K'wah in the Paktika province of Afghanistan via a C-17 Globemaster III. The fuel was delivered to help sustain members of Task Force Currahee whose only means of re-supply is through air delivery.
Source: U.S. Air Force Photo | Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
Soldiers from Task Force Currahee, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, recover bundles of fuel that were air delivered to Forward Operating Base Waza K'wah in the Paktika province of Afghanistan via a C-17 Globemaster III. The fuel was delivered to help sustain members of Task Force Currahee whose only means of re-supply is through air delivery.

That “problem” varies depending on the aviation audience and will feature prominently at the big alternative aviation fuels showcase at the upcoming Paris Air Show.

For civil aviation, it’s about fuel price and volatility, as well as environmental mandates from airlines.

For military aviation, costs are critical, but so is energy sovereignty and fuel availability, especially in-theater.

For all these reasons, says Hurst, both the civilian and military aviation sectors are squarely behind biofuel efforts, with orders for millions of gallons in the next few years from the world’s airlines and from all branches of the US military.

He adds one upside for aviation biofuels producers is that their consumers are prisoners to liquid fuels with today’s aircraft.

“You hear a lot about electric [cars],” he says. “That gets a lot more challenging when you get to airplanes.”

“Aviation biofuels are a great place to start in [the biofuel] industry,” agrees Jim Rekoske, VP and general manager of renewable energy at UOP, a division of Honeywell . “Customers have few other options to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Unlike the auto industry, where hybrids and electric vehicles can pull some market share away from liquid-fuel vehicles, Hurst says it will be a long time before any propulsion technology beyond liquid fuel engines is found in the air.

While a Swiss-made, solar-powered aircraft had a successful test flight in Europerecently, it’s a wide gap from experimental aircraft to solar-powered military transports or tourist-packed commercial jets, he adds.

“I suspect we may see something like a fuel-cell powered aircraft,” he says, “But that’s years off, a decade at least.”

In the meantime, aviation biofuels reached an important milestone this week.

Fuel standards organization ASTM International provisionally approved a new renewable jet fuel that could see 50/50 biofuel/fossil fuel blends power flights very soon.

A final decision should take “no more than 60 days” says UOP’s Rekoske.

Anticipating this approval, German carrier Lufthansa and aircraft maker Airbus plan on daily biofuel-powered flights by this fall.

Since mid-2010, the US military has launched biofuelled test flights with many of its aircraft, from the massive C-17 transport, to F-15 and F-18 fighters, to Seahawk helicopters. The US Air Force expects to certify its whole fleet for biofuel use by 2013.

That could mean a massive new market for aviation biofuels.

According to UN energy statistics, the world’s energy consumption is divided roughly into equal thirds between industrial, transportation and residential usage — a ratio virtually unchanged since the late 1990s.

Aviation accounts for about 12 percent of transportation sector; the UN estimates 7 billion gallons of aviation fuel were produced globally in 2005, the last year such global stats were available.

Paris Air Show 2011 - A CNBC Special Report
Paris Air Show 2011 - A CNBC Special Report

About 2.3 billion gallons of that was produced in the US.

Various cleantech and transportation analysts have forecast that aviation biofuels could replace roughly 1 percent of fossil fuel-derived aviation fuels by 2015, then ramping up to 25 percent by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030.

At current prices, that means a jump in the market value of a bio-based jet fuels from $2 billion in 2015 to $68 billion in 2030.

An extra bonus with these next-generation biofuels is their energy density.

One issue with older biofuels like ethanol has been their relative power, but UOP’s Rekoske says their bio-aviation fuel improves on the fossil fuel baseline.

He says tests have been done at cruise altitude using common aircraft , with 1-3 percent less fuel consumed overall.

Market potential means the drop-in biofuel market is busy, with new firms likeSolazymeup against Honeywell, looking to produce aviation biofuels from algae.

Keeping up with the pack, UOP’s Rekoske says his firm’s contract to deliver 700,000 gallons to the US military by the end of 2013 will “be delivered by end of this year.”

And unlike other biofuels firms that are trying to produce fuels in-house, he says his firm will focus on licensing their technology to other producers.

While he adds he has no jet biofuel partnerships he can announce yet, he did point to a partnership with Valero on producing diesel, adding that “any facility we’ve seen built for jet fuel would look a lot like diesel.”

Cost Is Key

But cost is still a factor, with biofuels more expensive in general.

Even at commercial scale, Rekoske admits the extra processing required for biofuels prices them at 10-15 percent above fossil aviation fuels in the short term.

“I think the market is ready, but the challenge is that aviation isn’t the most profitable sector,” he says.

But while biofuel prices have been driven up due to competition for feedstocks, not all biofuels are created equal.

Next-generation biofuels will use algae or non-edible plants, like Jatropha and Camelina, and not volatile feedstocks like corn, avoiding market disruptions and price spikes.

Paris Air Show 2011 - A CNBC Special Report
Paris Air Show 2011 - A CNBC Special Report

For military use, while costs are a factor, fuel availability can be even more critical.

In a mid-June presentation of DoD’s “Operational Energy Strategy,” carbon emissions and environmental concerns in fuel use were mentioned as critical aims, but they were the eighth on a list of eight key goals.

“Not only does [energy] cost the taxpayers, it costs the warfighters,” says deputy defense secretary William Lynn. “Every dollar spent on energy use is a dollar not spent on other warfighting priorities.”

While he said there is a “clear connection” between new energy production, “everything we do, every mission we perform, requires significant amounts of energy.”

“Ensuring the forces have the energy they need, when they need it, is not easy,” he adds. “The less energy we need, the more operationally resilient we will be,” he said.

So while the aviation biofuels market seem poised to take off, making those fuels as reliable as fossil fuels will remain critical.

While environmental benefits may be prized by some aviation sector firms, developing a biofuel usable today, at a reasonable price and indistinguishable from fossil fuels will be critical to success for biofuels firms.

It’s not so different from the usual refinery work at the end of the day, says UOP’s Rekoske.

“If anyone can figure out a way to make fungible drop-in biofuels, why not the guys who make fuels now?” he says.

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