Algae may show the most promise for jet fuel production, but British Airways has taken a different approach. The company recently the opening of a plant that will convert about 500,000 tons of organic waste into 16 million gallons of jet fuel each year. The fuel will be put into use by 2014.
The waste-to-fuel plant will use a process known as to produce jet fuel. According to an industry-Federal Aviation Administration partnership called — Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative — plants that use that method rather than algae- or jatropha-based fuels will most likely have much higher capital costs. Fluctuating costs of algae and jatropha feedstocks, though, will play a big role in determining the feasibility of commercial production as well. As CAAFI , “a sustainable business model that improves yields and encourages the growth of energy crops is required to ensure competitive costs.”
Lott agreed that commercial-scale production will be a major obstacle to break through. Certification of some new fuels by various fuel standards groups is expected by early 2011, “and then after that, it’s a matter of working with the production companies and suppliers and distribution."
"To ramp up production of this, it takes investment," he said. "In fact, we think really to do a global production and distribution network would require an investment of about $100 billion in production and distribution facilities. That’s not a small drop in the bucket, it will require a huge investment.”
Lott’s group, the IATA, has stated a goal of at least 10 percent of jet fuel coming from renewable sources by 2017. Making that sort of progress would help take a huge bite out of global warming mitigation strategies: According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, transportation in general accounted for about of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2004, and aviation used up about 11 percent of all transport energy. Estimates put air travel’s contribution to global warming at about 5 percent, and worst-case scenarios show it could climb to as much as 15 percent in coming decades.
“We have answered the questions and technically, it is feasible, it can be done with these drop-in fuels,” Lott said. “So it is not a question of ‘if,’ but a question of ‘when.’”