Entering the Age of BIO Fuels

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

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