Entering the Age of BIO Fuels

A look at the progress of a viable alternative to petroleum-based aviation fuel

“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.”

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