Entering the Age of BIO Fuels

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

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.

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