Just a few years ago, the idea of replacing kerosene-based jet fuel with renewable fuel from plants seemed out of the question. The cost of producing such alternative fuels dwarfed that of traditional jet A-grade fuel, and moving a severely carbon-intensive industry toward cleaner fuels would only happen if the economics worked out.
A 2008 spike in oil prices and a global economic slowdown later, and suddenly bio-jet fuel isn’t just back on the table, it might be in your airplane’s engines in the next four or five years.
“Generally speaking, three years ago I think many people felt that it was something on paper and it was a bit of a pipe dream,” said Steve Lott, the head of corporate communications for the airline industry group International Air Transport Association, or . “The tests we’ve seen in the past two years or so have definitely moved the ball forward and accelerated the process forward toward certification.”
The tests Lott mentioned are a series of flights by various airlines around the world demonstrating the capability of so-called “drop-in” biofuels. These fuels, derived from second-generation biomass sources like algae and the plant, can power a jet engine with no modification to the engine or plane, saving the industry from the economic impossibility of upgrading the worldwide airplane fleet.
Continental Airlines, for example, has already flown a using a 50-50 blend of kerosene and algae-based fuel in one engine of a Boeing 737, and Lott said there was even some indication that of the plane’s two engines the biofuel-powered one performed slightly better than the kerosene engine.
Bullish on Algae
Algae — yes, the green stuff you see on ponds — has emerged as the most promising biomass source that could eventually be scaled up to commercial production levels. It can grow in brackish water and in areas that don’t compete with food crops, and it has among the best energy-per-unit-area of growth of any biomass feedstock.
Although no large-scale production of algae-derived jet fuel has begun, there are indications that this will soon change. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or , has an algae-to-jet fuel project that will begin testing this year, and it to begin mass production by 2013. The agency hopes to demonstrate that production of algae triglyceride — which can then be converted into jet fuel — can come down in cost toward $1 per gallon, making it commercially viable. Only a few years ago, the cost was upwards of $100 per gallon.
Several companies in the U.S. are also attempting to move this field forward, including and , two California-based companies that shared in $100 million in DOE announced in December for innovators working on renewable jet fuel. Solazyme said it is delivering of algae-derived jet fuel to the U.S. Navy, which plans to test the fuel this year.
Jim Proulx, a spokesperson for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said his company is involved in several biofuel-related projects as well, although for the moment they are largely aimed at testing the feasibility of new types of fuels than actually pushing for a scale-up of commercial production.
“What we hope to see is something in the area of 10 percent [biofuel] use by 2015,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it is much. It is a couple billion gallons.”