Bio-jet fuel is being tested; Biofuel Revolution Reaches Airline Industry

Airplanes have a useful lifespan of 30 to 40 years, and their manufacturers want to ensure they have fuel until the end, chemical engineer Expedito Parente explains to Tierramérica. Three decades ago, he invented biodiesel and biokerosene, both refined...


Airplanes have a useful lifespan of 30 to 40 years, and their manufacturers want to ensure they have fuel until the end, chemical engineer Expedito Parente explains to Tierramérica. Three decades ago, he invented biodiesel and biokerosene, both refined from oleaginous crops.

Before today's fuel-hungry airplanes are ready to be scrapped decades from now, petroleum-based fuel could disappear or cost too much to make flying economically feasible, Parente says. Investment therefore is needed to develop, perfect and produce plant-based kerosene, fomented also by pressure to mitigate climate change.

The boom in fuels made from maize, sugarcane, palms and soybeans, among other plants, is in part due to the fact that they emit less greenhouse-effect gas than petroleum derivatives, and to the fact that the latter are in increasingly shorter supply.

Bio-jet fuel is being tested 'throughout the air transport chain, including in the manufacturing of planes, turbines and accessories, and the network of aeronautical fuel distribution,' says Parente. In two years it should be confirmed as a valid alternative to kerosene from petroleum, he predicts.

The process involves 'the entire interested universe,' Parente stresses, although he avoids naming the U.S.-based Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, which signed a cooperation agreement with Tecbio, the company that Parente founded in 2001 to promote his projects. 'The initial agreement was expanded to the rest of the actors,' he says.

It is a vision that the scientist and entrepreneur explains with the didactic approach of a university professor faced with the question about the commercial future of biokerosene and the possibility that it might run into protectionist barriers, like those that affect Brazilian ethanol in industrialised countries.

Ethanol 'has its own world, that of individual transport, of small engines'; biodiesel is aimed at 'collective transportation, large engines and vehicles like trucks, buses, tractors, trains and ships,' and both are different from biokerosene because they are for land and water transportation, Parente said.

Unlike biodiesel, which is intended for local consumption, making use of available raw materials, biokerosene for aviation 'has to be international, shared', and free from national protectionisms. It requires networking, as is being done with the tests, says the expert.

This cooperative approach also helps in speeding up its development. Furthermore, aviation does not have the alternative of an electric motor like those for land vehicles, which forces the concentration of efforts on bio-jet fuels, he adds.

Parente patented his two fuel inventions in 1980. But, because a long period went by without their being used, the patents ran out, and biodiesel and biokerosene became public domain.

Now they are gaining strength due to the threat of climate change. In Brazil, biodiesel will only be required to be mixed with petroleum diesel, beginning in January, at a proportion of two percent. This is three years behind Europe's advances in this area.

Parente began to dedicate himself to biofuels in the late 1970s, as a professor at the Federal University of Ceará, in Brazil's Northeast, far from the country's big cities and dynamic centres. His dream was frustrated by lack of government interest in the production of biofuel, including biokerosene, which was tested in 1983 with a successful flight of about 1,000 kilometres in a Brazilian-made aircraft.

At the time 'there was mental myopia,' says Parente, who now fears 'an astigmatism' that distorts the vision of biofuels. Energy coming from biomass is different from that of petroleum because it constitutes a different paradigm and because it achieves three missions, he teaches in his lectures.

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