This article, For Greening Aviation, Are Biofuels the Right Stuff, written by David Biello, associate editor at Scientific America, discusses biofuels, algae and other non-food plants, as a viable alternative fuel to the aviation industry. Opening the article, Biello discusses the open stages of biofuel use by the aviation industry, biofuels tests by Virgin Airlines, Continental Airlines, and Japan Airlines. Biofuels, the author claims, made form algae and non-food plants are now the leading contenders as replacements for fossil fuels used to power aircrafts.
The aviation industry currently uses 50 million gallons of jet fuel, Jet A or JP-8, every day, a cost of roughly $150 million dollars. The release of the greenhouse gases by aircrafts are especially detrimental to the atmosphere because jet fuel exhaust in the high altitude, nitrogen oxides, react with other molecules to increase levels of ozone, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even though emissions from aircraft compared with other vehicles are relatively small, roughly 3 percent, the mix of compounds and their release at high altitudes intensifies its heat-trapping power.
Test results from the Air New Zealand test flight showed that biofuels, in this test jet fuel refined from jatropha oil, can cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60 percent compared to present day conventional jet fuel. The goal of the International Air Transport Association is to have a carbon neutral growth by 2020. The challenge for this goal is how to produce enough biofuel to supply the 60 billion gallons of jet fuel used yearly by the aircraft.
The author claims that biofuels made from food crops, such as soybeans, sugar cane, or canola, would cause an increase in food prices and would also produce greenhouse gases during the planting and harvesting of these crops, as well as the clearing of land for agricultural purposes. The non-food plant sources of jatropha and camelina are promising, but difficult to produce in large quantities and could end up effecting food crop production and/or deforestation. Biofuel from algae also “represents a major hurdle, from perfecting the algae’s growth to extracting the oil cost-effectively,” according to Biello.
Through genetic modification, the productiveness of algae could be equivalent to crude oil. Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy, said the company hopes to produce 300 barrels of oil from algae grown in brackish ponds at its test facility in New Mexico by 2011. In five years, the output should reach 10,000 barrels a day, costing between $60 and $80 dollars per barrel, he says, compared to more than $300 per barrel today for the algae industry as a whole. Facilities to refine such algal oil are already being built. UOP, a refinery business of Honeywell that processed the biofuels used in the Continental test flight, opened the first “ecofining” facility in Livorno, Italy, last year, with a capacity to eventually produce 100 million gallons of diesel fuel for ground vehicles.
Today’s biofules produced in any quantity require a blend with jet fuels because they lack aromatics, which interact with seals in engines, helping them to swell shut. The expected fuel blends to be first used by the aviation industry are to be at a 1:1 ratio, or less, with a possible reduction of carbon emissions by 80 percent.