Entering the Age of BIO Fuels

Efforts to improve aviation’s environmental performance and reduce its impact on the planet’s ecosystem have increased in recent years, yet the challenges remain the same. Primary to environmental sustainability in commercial aviation is the development of a ‘drop-in’ bio-derived alternative to the typical fossil fuel-based jet-A. Industry players are partnering up to address challenges which include certification and a cost-effective process by which to supply and manufacture the product. AIRPORT BUSINESS spoke to a trade group, an aircraft manufacturer, a fuel company, and a biofuel producer about what it will take to make a commercial aviation biofuel a reality.

The Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) recently published a comprehensive report, the Beginner’s Guide to Aviation Biofuels, to inform industry employees and members of the flying public about a “new age in flight,” according to the group. ATAG is a global organization which represents all parts of the commercial aviation and air transport sector.

ATAG’s guide to aviation biofuels provides an outline of the benefits for the aviation industry in moving to a cleaner source of fuel, the safety and technical criteria for a sustainable biofuel, and the testing process by which a particular biofuel is evaluated.

“The guide is our contribution to the aviation biofuel initiative,” says ATAG head of communications Haldane Dodd. “There is no real technical work ATAG is doing; a lot of that is being done principally at the moment by the Boeing Company.”

From an airport perspective, says Dodd, who has an airport background and was previously employed with Airports Council International, “ What we are looking at as an industry are drop-in biofuels. We are not looking to replace the infrastructure. That is an important thing for airports to know…we are not looking to have different hydrant systems to the aircraft, or different fuel farms; this can all fit into the current fuel supply.”

“This is important from an airport, airline, and aircraft manufacturers perspective. We do not want to have to modify any equipment; it is basically jet fuel that comes from a different source.”

Director of biofuel strategy for Boeing, Darrin Morgan, agrees.

“The technology exists today to create a bio-derived synthetic parraffinic kerosene (Bio-SPK) fuel that performs exactly, and in some cases better, than traditional jet fuel,” says Morgan. “We need to take advantage of that technology that provides those performance benefits without any incurred cost to operators to augment their aircraft engines.”

Bio-SPK refers to a synthetic paraffinic kerosene produced from a bio-derived oil source, or aviation fuel that contains predominantly paraffins produced from non-petroleum feedstocks. A second-generation biofuel (biofuels which are produced using a sustainable resource), Bio-SPK is an end product that contains the same types of molecules that are typically found in conventional petroleum-based jet fuel, according to Boeing’s Bio-SPK evaluation report released last June.

From a supply standpoint, Morgan also agrees with ATAG stating that from the beginning, one of the primary requirements has been that any jet fuel alternative must be a drop-in solution, meaning it must work within the existing aviation fuel infrastructure without any necessary modifications.

The whole point behind a drop-in fuel is that it needs to be almost chemically the same as traditional jet fuel, says Dodd. “It’s an important point that we don’t have to replace or modify the current supply infrastructure in any way; certainly at any operational level at an airport,” says Dodd. “Any of that work would be done further down the path back towards the supply.”

ATAG’s Beginners Guide to Aviation Biofuels can be found at: www.enviro.aero/biofuels.

“We have been very active in the movement towards sustainable biofuels for use in aviation,” says Boeing environmental communications representative Terrance Scott. Boeing has been involved in four of the recent commercial airline biofuel test flights with Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Continental, and Japan Airlines.

Boeing’s executive summary on the evaluation of Bio-SPK outlines a comparative analysis of the various biofuels used in the test flights to support certification for the use of alternative fuels for commercial aviation. According to the report, the Bio-SPK flight test and research program generated data to support approval of Bio-SPK at up to a 50 percent blend ratio with petroleum-based jet fuel.

According to Scott, certification through the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM), an international standards organization, is expected some time next year; and in addition to the executive summary, Boeing is putting together a much more comprehensive report that will be submitted to the ASTM team this fall that will help support certification efforts.

“The other path we are on is commercialization,” says Scott. “How do you ensure that there is enough quantity? We are working with airlines and environmental groups and with some of the growers and providers to help seed the market. Wherever the fuel comes from, regardless of the feedstock, it needs to be produced sustainably by making sure communities aren’t disadvantaged due to the production of the fuel.

Among potential feedstocks by which oil is extracted to be refined for commercial use are algae, halophytes, camelina, and jatropha. Not one feedstock-based biofuel will be certified first, says Scott, because they all must perform the same.

“Certification will be feedstock agnostic, so really what we are talking about is a category of biofuel called Bio-SPK,” relates Scott.

When asked if the Boeing company supports any one feedstock or particular biofuel blend, Morgan says the company has intentionally avoided trying to pick “winners.”

“There are no silver bullets and what’s really needed is a portfolio of feedstock solutions,” explains Morgan.

“As the biofuels market matures and sustainable options are identified, understood, and brought to market, it’s our sense that there will be regional solutions based on feedstock agronomy and availablilty.”

According to Morgan, Boeing’s role in biofuel development is two-fold: to serve as an integrator and a facilitator. “Because of our position within the industry, we’ve been able to assist in bringing the right parties together, both inside and outside of aviation,” says Morgan.

“For the past several years we have focused our efforts on advance generation biofuels with the primary benefit being their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving the performance of commercial aircraft.”

Says Scott, “We are not looking to get into the fuels business, but if we can do things to bring the right parties together and help them find innovative solutions that insulate our customers from the volatility of oil prices, then we are game to help.”

The primary challenge, says Morgan, is trying to jumpstart a biofuels marketplace with petroleum fuel prices as low as they are, as well as trying to ensure adequate feedstock quantities are available.

“While oil prices are relatively low now, they are expected to rise again,” says Morgan. “As that happens, and as the biofuels market grows, it’s our belief that biofuels will be cost-competitive, with pricing somewhere between $70-90 per barrel at maturity.

“A number of ideas have been put forth here in the U.S. that make biofuels competitive when the price of petroleum is low and that in turn get repaid when the price of petroleum is high, further enhancing their attractiveness for feedstock growers.”

Steve Anderson, Air BP’s global product quality manager, says the company is a very big player in biofuels, but its focus continues to be on ground transport fuels.

“The way we see it at the moment,” says Anderson, “we are keeping a very close eye on the development of aviation biofuels. For us to make the right kind of business case, we will have to build upon what we are already doing for the ground transport sector. If we can apply that work to aviation, then I can see aviation biofuels becoming more of a reality, not just for Air BP but for the industry as a whole.”

Mike Mooney leads the technical and operations functions for Air BP’s general aviation business in the U.S. He relates that one of the basic issues with the bio-components used in ground fuels today is that they are not hydrocarbons, they contain oxygen; ethanol is used in gasoline and FAME (fatty acid methyl ester) is used in diesel fuel. (For more, see “A Concern With Biodiesel”, AIRPORT BUSINESS, July 2009; available at www.airportbusiness.com.)

“Ethanol and FAME are not hydrocarbons and not permitted in jet fuel,” says Mooney. “Diesel fuel containing FAME is creating big problems for the aviation industry right now due to FAME contamination in shared transport systems such as multi-product pipelines and ships.

“What we are talking about here is that any bio-derived materials used in jet fuel must be hydrocarbons, and must be approved by the OEMs and regulatory authorities” Anderson notes that hydrocarbon material can be transported through the supply system with much less concern for contamination, and specification bodies such as ASTM will soon publish a new specification covering synthetic and bio-derived jet fuels.

“CAAFI, or the Commercial Alternative Aviation Fuels Initiative, has been very active in making sure the industry has all of the preliminary work for certification done up front, so that once these fuels start to become a reality, the certification and approval processes are in place,” says Anderson.

He cites three points about aviation biofuel: it must be cost-effective, both for the producer and the user; the feedstock must be environmentally sustainable; and the supply must be secure.

“It has to be essentially cost-neutral compared to conventional jet fuel for the aviation biofuel industry to flourish; otherwise the only way biojet will enter the market is by Government mandate or incentive,” says Anderson.

“That’s the problem that we face. Right now, feedstock and processing costs for an aviation biofuel are higher than the cost of producing a petroleum-based jet fuel by conventional means.

“At present there just isn’t enough suitable bio-feedstock available to really put a dent into the current demand for jet fuel; and to produce an aviation biofuel in a cost-effective manner.”

Regarding security of supply, Anderson says utilizing biofuel reduces reliance on crude oil from unstable parts of the world. From a cost standpoint, airlines want a viable alternative to petroleum-based jet fuel in order to mitigate fluctuations in price, he says.

“So you want to be able to do the right thing for the environment, but the price has to be competitive to make a sound business case,” says Anderson.

Mitch Hawkins, CEO of BioJet Corporation, has brought together a group of investors in a collaborative effort to be a major international player in the use of jatropha oil as a replacement for petroleum-based jet fuel. According to Hawkins, the company has all the skill sets needed to make an aviation biofuel a reality: a source of plant oil, jatropha; an understanding of aerospace; and a carbon solution.

BioJet was formed a little more than six months ago and its reason for being is to create an interface between those three aspects of biofuel development, says Hawkins.

He relates that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects a target of a 10 percent use of a bio-jet fuel in commercial aircraft by 2017. “That’s some 200 million barrels per year in use by 2017,” says Hawkins.

“We are projecting this business to produce some 20-25 million barrels by 2015-17. So we are looking for about 10 percent of the market.” Hawkins says the company has five million barrels under contract currently.

Nathan Agnew, BioJet advisory board member, led efforts in the investigation of alternative fuels for Air New Zealand before becoming an executive general manager for the Melbourne Airport in Australia. During his time at Air New Zealand, Agnew says the group worked with the mantra that any alternative fuel has to be “technically as good, environmentally better, and commercially viable.”

In investigating a range of alternative fuels, Agnew says he chose a jatropha-derived jet fuel because it could be readily sourced, has a net CO2 footprint of 40-60 percent less than current fossil fuels, and in many cases exceeded the technical requirements for a jet fuel.

“Jet fuel prices are now back at a price that makes large-scale processing of a jatropha-based jet fuel economic,” says Agnew. “This is before giving jatropha any economic benefit to its reduced carbon footprint if global carbon trading becomes a reality.”

“Once a fuel is certified I think we’re going to see a flood of money flow into the sector for the simple reason that the fuel will be drop-in and akin to driving to the gas station and filling up your car regardless of the brand.”

Agnew says jatropha-derived jet fuel can probably be produced in volume at a price close to $60 per barrel once a conservative cost of carbon is included.

Jatropha’s economic credentials are well established, adds Agnew. It grows on otherwise marginal, arid land and does not necessarily compete with food crops, he says.

“Currently there are refiners, aircraft/ engine manufacturers, airlines, and jatropha growers, but no one integrating along the value chain,” relates Agnew. “Ultimately that’s what it’s going to take: entrepreneurs willing to take commercial risk to develop an end-to-end solution.”

Camelina is an oil-seed cousin of canola oil and typically grows in very dry areas making it drought-resistant, says John Williams, spokesman for biotech company Targeted Growth.

Camelina was used to power a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 in January of this year. The flight itself was a 50/50 blend of biofuel and petroleum fuel in one engine. Of that 50 percent, 85 percent was camelina.

Primarily an energy crop, camelina is often grown as a rotational crop with wheat when the land would be otherwise left unplanted. According to ATAG, camelina therefore provides growers with an opportunity to diversify their crop base and reduce mono-cropping (planting the same crop year after year).

“Camelina is one of the crops that can be quickest to be utilized for the commercialization of a viable biofuel for aviation use,” says Williams. “It has already been used for a couple years as a feedstock for biodiesel; existing pressing facilities can be used to press the seeds; and using existing refining technology, it can be converted into a one-for-one replacement drop-in jet-A.

“It’s already part of a natural infrastructure where tens of thousands of acres are going to be planted this year, moving up to hundreds of thousands of acres being planted in the next couple years.”

At the molecular level, according to Williams, a camelina-based biofuel is identical to petroleum, just derived from a different source. “We did a lifecycle analysis with Michigan Technology University on the use of camelina as a jet fuel and the numbers came back with an overall emissions reduction of some 80 percent,” says Williams.

“Is there enough land mass to have camelina be a 100 percent replacement for all the aviation fuel needed? Absolutely not. But when you think about it as a bridge strategy, and getting to a time when something like algae may be commercializable in a cost-effective way, I think camelina will play a big role in the next couple of years on this front.”

SAFUG: An Airline-Led Industry Group
The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) was formed in September of 2008 and is an initiative that encourages the acceleration of the development and
commercialization of second-generation biofuels for the aviation industry.

Members of SAFUG, which include Boeing, UOP (an affiliate of Honeywell), and a dozen commercial airline companies, all subscribe to a sustainability pledge stipulating that a sustainable biofuel must perform as well as, or better than, kerosene-based fuel, but with a smaller carbon lifecycle, according to the group’s website.

The user’s group also pledges to consider only renewable fuel sources that minimize biodiversity impacts, require minimum land, water, and energy to produce, and don’t compete with food or fresh water resources.

SAFUG’s commitment to sustainable biofuel development requires that cultivation and harvest of feedstock must provide socioeconomic value to local communities and projects should include provisions that improve socioeconomic conditions for farmers and their families.

For more on SAFUG, visit www.safug.org.

Vying for Approval
CAAFI announced recently that the ASTM International Committee on petroleum products and lubricants passed a synthetic fuel standard, D7566, “Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons,” which will allow fuels containing synthetic hydrocarbons derived from non-petroleum
sources to be used in aviation.

In June, industry sponsored Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) and an ASTM International subcommittee approved a new specification that details the properties and criteria necessary to control the manufacture and quality of alternative fuels for safe use in aviation.

On August 4, the full ASTM committee passed the specification that will enable the use of synthetic fuels in aviation.

In a recent press release, Air Transport Association (ATA) president James May states, “For the industry specifically, this brings us one step closer to our aim of widespread production of cleaner, alternative fuels.”