Jet fuels derived from algae, camelina and jatropha -- plants that pack an energy punch, are not eaten as food and do not displace food crops -- could be approved and replacing petroleum fuels in commercial flights as early as next year, a Boeing executive said yesterday.
Bill Glover, managing director of environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, which is leading an effort to develop, test and certify alternative jet fuels, said the technology is ready. Now, it is just a matter of growing enough non-food feedstock plants and refining enough of their oil.
In the past year and a half, commercial airlines have flown four successful test flights using a variety of biofuel-jet fuel blends. Boeing was involved in all four flights, including a Virgin Atlantic flight using a coconut- and babassu-derived biofuel blend; an Air New Zealand flight using a jatropha-derived biofuel blend; a Continental Airlines flight using a blend of algae- and jatropha-derived biofuel; and a Japan Airlines flight using an algae-, jatropha- and camelina-derived biofuel blend.
"We've proven the technical capability of biofuel as a drop-in replacement," Glover said. "It meets all jet fuel requirements and then some."
Not only has the industry proved the technical capability, but it also has shown that biofuels can improve overall fuel efficiency.
Air New Zealand said yesterday that using a 50 percent blend of biofuel with traditional jet A-1 fuel can improve fuel efficiency by more than 1 percent, according to data collected during the December 2008 test flight. On a 12-hour flight, that would save 1.43 metric tons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 4.5 metric tons, the airline said.
Information like that likely will help the industry get second-generation biofuels certified as drop-in replacements for jet fuel.
"Certainly the data from our biofuel test flight will be a critical component towards helping biofuel become a certified aviation fuel," Air New Zealand's general manager of airline operations and chief pilot, Capt. David Morgan, said in a statement.
Next month, a coalition headed by Boeing will release a full report on all the test flights. And after that, the international standards board that approves fuels and chemicals could certify plant-derived biofuels as jet A-1 fuel within a year, Glover said.
Once the fuels are approved as jet A-1, they can immediately be used as drop-in replacements. "Airplanes are already certified to operate on anything known as jet A-1," Glover added.
Glover and other executives said they think the approval process will be smooth because after processing plant oils, "We leave a hydrocarbon that looks exactly like petroleum fuel," said Jennifer Holmgren, the general manager of renewable energy and chemicals at UOP, the company that derived the plant-oil refining and processing treatment for the Air New Zealand, Continental and Japan Airlines test flights.
And the certification does not have to be feedstock-dependent, Holmgren said, because UOP's process can produce the same end product from all the feedstocks.
"The report will not be feedstock-specific," Glover said. "It will be generic to whoever can meet the performance requirements."
Which feedstock is best?
Some feedstocks show more promise than others -- at least in the short term.
Tom Todaro, CEO of Targeted Growth, a molecular biology firm that tweaks camelina and algae genes to create productive feedstocks, said algae is eight to 10 years away from production, whereas camelina is ready now.
Boeing's Glover, who also serves as co-chairman of the Algal Biomass Organization, agreed that algae-derived fuels are in their early stages.
"Camelina is the blue-collar version of canola," Todaro said. "It's the mean older brother. It's not food-ready; it tastes funny. But it works well as oil."
Todaro's firm is growing camelina on fallow fields in Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Washington and the High Plains of Texas. But he said the United States has the potential to produce about 1 billion gallons of camelina oil a year in areas as diverse as Georgia and New Mexico.
That amount is only a drop in the bucket compared with the 65 billion gallons of fuel the aviation industry uses worldwide each year, but it is a start, the executives said.
And it shows that the industry is starting to scale up. Last month, Sapphire Energy, an algae biofuel company that participated in the Continental test flight, said it would be producing 1 million gallons of diesel and jet fuel a year by 2011 (Greenwire, April 28).
Any aviation-biofuel solution is going to involve a wide variety of feedstocks, the executives said.
"Each [feedstock] will probably make an important contribution," UOP's Holmgren said.
Glover agreed. "We want variety. Creativity is really a good thing," he said. "We need a portfolio of things."