Biofuels are Big at the Paris Air Show: But When Will They Truly Meet Demand from the Global Aviation Industry?

The Paris Air Show, the biggest and most prestigious international aviation event, is taking place this week. Airline companies and biofuel producers are trying to make renewable fuels the star of the show.

On Sunday, Honeywell flew a G450 business jet from New Jersey to Paris on a half-and-half blend of camelina-based biofuel, making it the first transatlantic biofuels flight in history. Forbes’ Todd Woody was on that trip, which traced the path of Charles Lindbergh’s first solo flight across the Atlantic:

I’m more than half way to Paris on the first transatlantic flight powered by biofuels and the journey has been….utterly unremarkable.

Which is exactly the point.

No modifications to Honeywell’s Gulfstream G-450 were needed before the biofuel made from camelina seed – an inedible plant – by the company’s UOP subsidiary was pumped into one of the six-year-old jet’s Rolls-Royce engines.

And yesterday, Boeing flew its new 747 freighter plane from Seattle to Paris using a 15 percent blend camelina biofuel. This flight will also be a “first.” Boeing will be showing off the plane, which it says will substantially reduce carbon emissions:

When Boeing engineers began designing a new version of the 747, one of their goals was to improve the airplane’s environmental performance. At around the same time, a group of Boeing researchers set out to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint by supporting the development and testing of sustainable biofuels.

This summer, the 747-8 Freighter is set to enter service with a double-digit reduction in carbon emissions. Cargolux of Luxembourg is the freighter’s launch customer.

In the meantime, the A380 superjumbo – the largest passenger airplane in the world – clipped a wing and was grounded for the remainder of the show. The event also brought another round of delays for Airbus’ new model.

The aircraft had been scheduled for demonstration flights during the show but these have now been canceled, EADS spokesman Alexander Reinhardt said Monday.

On Saturday, Airbus announced that two of the three versions of its new wide body jet, the A350, would be delayed about two years.

The stretched A350-1000 is being pushed back to 2017 to give engine supplier Rolls Royce time to develop a more powerful motor that will extend the jet’s range, Airbus said. The standard version of the plane, the A350-900, is still expected to arrive in the second half of 2013, Airbus said.

The grounded flights and delays cast a shadow over Airbus as it takes on its traditional rival Boeing Co. at the air show, where both are expected to announce a string of orders as they vie for the position of biggest plane maker in the world.

But Airbus and Boeing are in another competition – one over sustainability (if you call building such huge fuel-sucking machines sustainable). So far, Airbus has made a couple test flights on Jatropha-based fuels and has set up a biofuels consortium to do research on camelina-based fuels. In addition to this week’s historic biofuels flight with its new freighter, Boeing has also supported algae-based fuels – becoming a founding member of the algal biomass association.

This week’s transatlantic flights by Honeywell and Boeing are an important step for the biofuels industry. But for those who might not pay close attention to the energy sector, the seemingly slow progress in developing biofuels for air transport is as agonizing as the time it takes for Airbus to roll out a new aircraft. Haven’t we been hearing about these test flights for the last few years?

“There are a lot of false expectations about how quickly things will scale up,” says Tim Zenk, the VP of Corporate Affairs at the algae producer Sapphire Energy. Sapphire has just broken ground on a 300-acre facility that will eventually scale to a million gallons of jet fuel and diesel by 2015.

To truly meet the needs of an industry, the needs of the world, the scale is immense—it’s humbling. But all you need to do it look at history: There’s basically been a major shift in energy use every hundred years. Only this time we don’t have 100 years. People are always focused on why algae fuels aren’t directly competitive today – but the reality is no one has ever come close to achieving commercial scale yet. We’re competing with a hundred-year old industry. But we are very confident that the commercialization of this technology will happen within 5 years.

Actually, aside from the public displays at this week’s Paris Air Show, there have been a few developments that look promising for jet fuels made from renewable bio-based feedstocks.

Firstly, ASTM approved a new international standard for renewable jet fuel from lipids that allows for a 50% blend, which Zenk says “removes a number of barriers for the fuels, allowing companies to trust them.” The organization is reportedly working on a standard for alcohol-based fuels as well.

Following that announcement, Airbus and Lufthansa said they’ll be using a 50% biofuel blend in flights between Frankfurt and London over a six-month period of time.

And after a long time of delays due to technical and financial constraints, there are now over 100 “advanced” biofuels projects under development around the world, representing 4 billion gallons of non-food based fuels through 2015.

However, according to Biofuels Digest, aviation biofuels will likely only displace 1% of fuel by that date – eventually scaling up to 25% of demand over the following decade. That seems like a pretty slow pace from a climate-solutions perspective – but it’s the reality on the ground given the current levels of investment and technical pace.

This week’s transatlantic flights were certainly “historic.” But let’s hope we can get renewable fuels beyond novelty at events like the Paris Air Show in the not-so-distant future.

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