Advanced Biofuels Taking Off? Use of Non-Food, Bio-Based Jet Fuel Climbing

Will the airline industry push non-food based biofuels to scale? There are signs that the push is underway.

Earlier this week, United Airlines became the first air carrier in the U.S. to make a commercial flight using a 40% algae-based jet fuel from Solazyme. And today, Air Alaska is flying the nation’s second commercial biofuels flight, using a fuel containing a 20% cooking-oil-based feedstock produced by Dynamic Fuels. Air Alaska will be making 75 trips within the U.S. over the coming weeks using the cooking oil blend.

It’s not cheap though. The fuel used by Air Alaska is roughly six times more expensive than traditional jet fuel. But a spokeswoman for the Air Alaska, Megan Lawrence, tells Climate Progress that the company is looking at a suite of options to reduce emissions, and finding new fuels is one of them.

“We’re trying to show that there’s demand for the product,” she said. “We know that we have to get out in front of these issues.”

These two U.S. announcements come after a series of commercial flights around the world using a variety of non-food based biofuels. Over the last few months, air carriers in the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Finland, Mexico, Spain and China all flew commercial flights using a blend of advanced biofuels. The flights prove that biofuels are safe, and that airlines are getting serious about alternatives to petroleum fuels.

Biofuels reporter Jim Lane, who runs the site Biofuels Digest, thinks that the aviation industry could be a “quick win” for biofuel companies now reaching scale:

The case is strong. To convert 20 percent of road transport around the world to biofuels — a threshold most would describe as a major clean energy “win” — would take a transformative infusion of capital, and require the aggregation of as much as 1.5 billion tons of biomass. The impact? Transformative. The logistics? Daunting. The timelines? Awfully long for a public which feeds on 24-hour news cycles and 1–2 year product life cycles.

By contrast, converting 20 percent of aviation to biofuels would transform modern aviation, be a major signal that clean energy can work at scale, and offers a model for developing R&D, certification and supply chain consortia. It would take around 12 billion gallons of biofuels, and perhaps 120 million tons of biomass, distributed to 1,700 or so airports around the world.

How clean are these fuels? Air Alaska says the cooking-grease fuel emits about 10% fewer carbon emissions when burned than petroleum jet fuel. On a life cycle basis, Dynamic Fuels says the fuel emits about 80% fewer carbon emissions — even with the fuel being produced far away and delivered via truck or rail.

Don’t expect all these partnerships to send the biofuels industry soaring quite yet. We’ll need to see far bigger refineries for costs to become competitive with petroleum-based jet fuel. Many airlines are just experimenting, and are currently finding far more cost-effective solutions in washing airplanes, reducing weight, and using new forms of air traffic control.

However, as Air Alaska’s Lawrence told Climate Progress, new fuels will be increasingly important.

“This is the next logical step for us, and by helping create more demand for fuel we can help find an alternative that is more competitive.”

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