Darrin Morgan, who oversees strategy development and execution for Boeing’s Sustainable Biofuels Program, told Wired.com that the company expects a bio-fuel blend jet fuel to be certified sometime within the next three years, at which point it would be cleared for use in commercial jets.
Morgan says that while algae holds great promise, it is a family of fuels called synthetic paraffinic kerosene, which includes those distilled from the oils of Helianthus (sunflowers) and jatropha, that are closest to becoming certified. “We think it’s going to happen in three to five years,” Morgan says of the certification process. “Faster than most people thought.”
That is substantially faster than many had been saying. Jatropha oil is certainly among the hottest forms of next generation biofuels being explored. It doesn’t need to compete with food crops since it can be grown in the harsh climates with little water.
Morgan’s confidence comes in part because synthetic paraffinics have a similar make up as coal-to-liquid fuel, which is already approved and in use. “It’s dirty, but it’s certified,” Morgin says of liquid coal “If you fly in or out of South Africa, you’re probably using it.” South Africa is home of Sasol, the company that pioneered coal to liquid technology.” Morgan points out that compared to liquid coal, bio-derived synthetic paraffins can significantly reduce life cycle greenhouse gas emissions.
And synthetics are drop-in fuels, which means they can be used in existing engines, no modifications required. “It’s simple chemistry,” Morgan says. “If molecules in a biofuel are like those in already approved drop-in synthetic kerosene from coal, then by definition it’s a drop-in fuel.”
The industry seems to be getting on board. One biofuel test after another has been announced by airlines, plane manufacturers, and engine makers this past year. Boeing is working with Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic, Airbus has partnered with Honeywell and JetBlue, and British Airways is working with Rolls Royce.
While Morgan and Boeing see certification happening in the next half decade, that doesn’t mean you’ll fly to your next class reunion in a biofuel powered jet. For one thing, the world’s commercial airline fleet burns something like 85 billion gallons of fuel every year. That’s a lot of jatropha, and finding the resources to grow it will be a challenge.
Price is another issue. The airlines talk a good environmental game, and they may very well want to get clean, but if the price of oil continues dropping toward more manageable levels, the industry might not feel quite the same urgency when it comes to switching over to biofuels.
Jet biofuel will need to be competitive with oil at $100 to $150 a barrel if we are going to start to see significant market penetration, I think, though a very serious carbon price would certainly help — assuming that such a carbon price was applied to the airline industry, which is far from certain anytime soon.
I think the timing for all this — certification, improved and scalable biofuel processes, a serious carbon regime, and the return to soaring oil prices — is circa 2015.
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