Aviation Biofuels on the Runway

Biofuels have powered luxury business jets and military planes. Now they're revving up for a takeoff in commercial flights.

Staff of the China Eastern Airlines in front of an airplane using biofuel shortly before the plane's successful trial flight in April 2014 in Shanghai, China; Credit/ChinaFotoPress

In 2011, as a reporter for Forbes magazine, I was invited to chronicle the first transatlantic flight to be powered by biofuels, in this case a camelina-derived blend refined by Honeywell’s UOP subsidiary. On June 17 of that year, I settled into the soft leather seats of Honeywell’s Gulfstream G450 and sipped a chilled sauvignon blanc as the corporate jet reached cruising altitude en route to Paris from New Jersey and made history.

Later that month international regulators approved the commercial use of aviation biofuels like camelina that are made from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids.

A little over a year later, again on assignment for Forbes, I found myself on a decidedly less luxurious but just as historic flight.  Strapped into the cabin of a dimly lit Navy C-2A Greyhound transport wearing a helmet and goggles, I braced for impact as the plane hit the deck of the USS Nimitz at 150 miles an hour and became the first biofueled transport to land on an aircraft carrier. In fact, the entire strike force cruising off Oahu was running on a mix of algae and cooking oil in a demonstration of the Great Green Fleet, an initiative to power half the Navy’s operations from renewable sources by 2020.

It’s now 2014, but I have yet to board a routine commercial flight powered by biofuels. Quantas, China Eastern Airlines, United, and Continental are among the airlines that have done such flights, often using a 50-50 blend of conventional and biofuel. But the green jet age is yet to take off, even though there have been hundreds of test flights using drop-in biofuel since Virgin Airlines made the first biofuel test flight in February 2008.  Still, the age of biofuel flights is on the runway, revving its clean green engines.

The global airline industry has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2020 with a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And in June, California biofuel maker Amyris and French energy giant Total announced they would soon begin selling a green jet fuel derived from sugarcane.  Some airlines, such as KLM, already have begun limited flights using aviation biofuels. Simply put, the world’s airlines will buy as much competitively priced aviation biofuel as manufacturers can make.  

“They know they have a long-term, committed customer in aviation for biofuels,” says Jonathon Counsell, head of environment for British Airways.Some airlines are stepping into the void to help jumpstart production, either by signing contracts to purchase aviation biofuels or by making direct investments in new refineries.

The Honeywell flight, Great Green Fleet demo and the numerous test flights conducted by major airlines in recent years have used a variety of green jet fuels, from algae to jatropha. All, however, were what you might call bespoke biofuels, produced in small, expensive batches.

The question now is how to scale up biofuel production. Even meeting the industry’s short-term goal of burning biofuels to meet just 1 percent of annual global aviation jet fuel demand means producing 600 million gallons a year, according to Boeing.

“Everyone wants to build the nth plant – no one wants to build the first plant or the second plant,” says Dr. Wallace Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University who studies biofuels. “You have to get some plants functioning and producing product at spec to attract investors.”

“The uncertainty for investors is just huge,” he added. “There’s uncertainty on capital cost and feedstock price.”

Much of that ambiguity owes to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s continuing changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets quotas for advanced biofuels production. The credits associated with biofuel production, called Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINS, are crucial to the financial viability of refineries.

Over the past two years, the EPA has dramatically ratcheted down the quotas to reflect the dearth of refining capacity. For instance, the official 2013 target was 1.75 billion gallons. The EPA subsequently reset that to 6 million gallons and finally to 810,185 gallons to reflect actual biofuels production last year. The 2014 target remains at 17 million gallons, but whether the EPA will eventually cut that quota remains anyone’s guess.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce holding vials of biofuel during a media conference at Sydney airport preceding Australia's flight flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel on April 23, 2012/ Greg Wood, Getty Images

Those constantly changing quotas has roiled the nascent biofuels industry. “That’s not helping get those feedstock plants viable,” says Veronica May, vice president and general manager for renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell UOP, which sells biofuel-refining technology. In other words, the farmers needed to grow non-edible food feedstocks will be reluctant to invest in new crops if they’re not assured of a market. And even once they do, it can take three years before there’s a viable crop supply for biofuel production.

And the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent within the EU from 1990 by 2020, has thrown another wrench into the mix by its mandate that 10 percent of all road transport must come from renewable energy by 2020.  Some critics fear that this will divert nearly all available biofuels to road transportation, with little remaining for aviation – even though the European Commission, working with Airbus and leading European airlines, has developed a roadmap for producing 2 million tons of sustainable aviation biofuels a year by 2020.

Some airlines are stepping into the void to help jump-start production, either by signing contracts to purchase aviation biofuels or by making direct investments in new refineries.

United Airlines, for instance, signed a contract with AltAir Fuels in June 2013 to buy 15 million gallons of renewable jet fuel over a three-year period. That’s not even a rounding error on United’s annual consumption of four billion gallons of jet fuel. But it is half the planned annual output of a facility AltAir is scheduled to complete this year near Los Angeles International Airport. The company cut capital costs by retrofitting an existing petroleum refinery and installing Honeywell UOP’s green jet fuel equipment to process non-edible oils and agricultural waste.

“It will take time before we have substantial quantities of fuel available,” says Angela Foster-Rice, United’s managing director of global environmental affairs. “We would very much like to partner with AltAir further if this works while exploring other options.”

“Airlines Have to Come to the Party”

A British airways jet/Getty iStock. British airways is exploring algal biofuel and using municipal waste as feedstock to produce drop-in jet fuel.

British Airways, meanwhile, decided it needed to send a signal to potential biofuel investors by putting its own capital on the line. In April of this year, the airline announced it would both invest in the construction of the GreenSky London biofuel refinery to be built by U.S. company Solena as well as purchase the facility’s entire production of bio-jet fuel when the project goes online in 2017. The 11-year contract to buy 13.4 million gallons of biofuel annually is worth $550 million and will account for 2 percent British Airways aviation fuel consumption, according to Counsell, the airline’s environment chief.

GreenSky will convert 575,000 metric tons of landfill waste annually into biofuel in a process Solena calls Integrated Biomass-Gas to Liquids. In a “Gasification Island,” plasma torches generate temperatures of 3,500 degrees Celsius to reduce garbage and other urban waste to their molecular compounds to create a biosynthetic gas. The gas leaves the device and is sent to a conditioning chamber to cool to 300 degrees Celsius and remove particulate matter and acidic gases. A Fischer-Tropsch process converts the gas into long-chain hydrocarbons. The crude is then refined into bio-jet fuel or biodiesel.

Given the years-long lead time to persuade farmers to grow a new non-edible agricultural feedstock and the continuing uncertainty over their sustainability, Counsell says British Airways is focusing on a virtually inexhaustible feedstock available immediately: garbage.

He notes that the United Kingdom generates about 200 million metric tons of trash a year. Just within a 25-mile radius of the planned plant, there’s 10 million tons of landfill waste available. “If this works, we can build half a dozen more of these plants and we could meet 10 percent of our fuel demand,” says Counsell. “In the U.K. there’s an abundant source of waste so this is the obvious path for us to take.”

The airline is also exploring the potential of other biofuels, such as algae. Ultimately, British Airways believes it can obtain 30 percent of its jet fuel from biofuels by 2050.

Camelina, a member of the mustard family, is a popular feedstock for drop-in jet biofuel/Credit: Biomass Hub

But if airlines are to hit their sustainability targets, then they need to step up and take the lead in investing in the first biofuel projects, argues Counsell. “I think it’s necessary for airlines to invest in high capital-intensive projects like this one,” he says. “You’re going to need a range of investors, so I think airlines are going to have to come to the party and provide some of that investment capital.”

Foster-Rice of United says such investment is something the airline would consider, though it would be a departure for the company. United, based in Chicago, is part of a consortium that is investigating the potential of a host of feedstocks, from municipal waste to corn stover ¬– the inedible remains of a corn harvest – which is plentiful in the Midwest.

No Silver (or Green) Bullet

Work continues, meanwhile, on more exotic biofuels like algae. Sapphire Energy is operating a biorefinery on 80 acres of New Mexico desert called the Green Crude Farm. In long oblong ponds filled with brackish water, algae is fed a diet of carbon dioxide and sunlight and oil is harvested from the resulting pond scum. The pilot project is only producing about 1.5 million gallons of oil a year, and the company doesn’t expect production to reach commercial sale until 2018. It also still needs to obtain regulatory certification for its oil for use as ground transportation and jet fuel.

The revival of jatropha as a feedstock for aviation biofuel is also under way. Although jatropha lost popularity in biofuels circles over the last decade after investors found it bore too few oil-rich seeds, the San Diego-based company SGB has used genetic engineering to breed unusually high-yielding jatropha strains for use in biofuels (See “From Bio to Fuel").  

Among SGB’s clients is JetBio, a consortium of Airbus, BP and the Inter-American Development Bank that seeks to foster development of aviation biofuels. “The demand is huge — every single airline would like to be flying on biofuel today,” Rafael Davidsohn Abud, JetBio’s managing partner, told me. “We’ve been very pleased with what SGB has done with jatropha.”

And the search continues for new non-food-crop plants that could be grown to feed airlines’ appetite for biofuels. In the Middle East, for instance, a group that includes Boeing and Honeywell is supporting a project to grow the halophyte salicornia bigelovii, a native, saltwater-tolerant scrub that thrives in coastal deserts. “It’s another crop that can be grown in adverse situations and bring land that normally is not producing any type of crop and make it available for fuel,” says Honeywell’s May.

In other words, there won’t be any single silver – or green – bullet when it comes to aviation biofuels. Rather, it’s likely that, at least in the short term, a variety of feedstocks will be used to supply jet fuel in the regions where they’re most suited for cultivation. In Brazil, that could be jatropha or sugarcane-based biofuels. The U.S. and Europe will probably rely on a mix of municipal waste and biomass like agricultural waste. Algae will be grown in a variety of hot, sunny regions with access to carbon dioxide. Boeing has signed an agreement with South African Airlines to explore the use of municipal waste for biofuels and to encourage smaller farmers to grow feedstocks. 

That makes both logistical and environmental sense. In the U.S., a handful of airports account for most aviation traffic and thus it’s logical to obtain locally sourced biofuel when possible to avoid the cost of transporting it by tanker. An existing pipeline in Los Angeles, for instance, will send green jet fuel from AltAir’s refinery to United’s facility at Los Angeles International Airport.

From Greenhouse Gas to Biofuel

The most widely available feedstock for a low-carbon jet fuel happens to be a fossil fuel – methane from natural gas. A San Francisco Bay Area startup called Siluria Technologies is commercializing a process called oxidative coupling of methane developed by MIT professor Angela Belcher that allows methane to be converted to biofuels without using the expensive and energy-intensive Fischer-Tropsch process. Instead, a catalyst grown from a genetically modified virus does the work, resulting in a biofuel with half the carbon footprint of petroleum-derived jet fuel, according to chief executive Edward Dineen.

A Siluria pilot project near San Francisco Bay can produce about a quarter to a third of a  barrel of gasoline a day. Methane or ethylene gas flows into a reactor containing the catalyst, and gasoline flows out the other end. On the day I visited the project, Eric Sher, Siluria’s vice president for research and development, hands me a bottle filled with a clear liquid. I take a sniff – pure petrol.

With additional processing, methane could be refined into aviation fuel. But Dineen is in no hurry to pursue that market. At least not yet. “Aviation fuel is a lower-priced product and you’re selling to the airlines, which are always under profit pressures,” he says. Nevertheless, he has had discussions with some airlines. “I think down the road we’ll probably make aviation fuel.”

Airport workers filling the tank of an Airbus with biofuel in preparation for its flight from Paris to Toulouse in October 2013/ Credit: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

In the near term, the most abundant current source of aviation biofuel is something already being made in the hundreds of millions of gallons: green diesel. In January, Boeing announced that one of its chemists, James Kinder, discovered that green diesel – typically made from biomass or waste oils and fat – was perfectly suited for use as jet fuel. Unlike biodiesel – the stuff you may see pumped into a 30-year-old Mercedes sporting “Biodiesel: No War Required” bumper stickers – green diesel has a different molecular structure that allows it to pack an energy density that actually exceeds that of petroleum-based jet fuel.

Better yet, green diesel refining capacity stands at about 800 million gallons a year. A single refinery operated by Diamond Green Diesel in Louisiana, for instance, is now producing 130 million gallons a year.

“We had been looking  at a number of years at different pathways for biofuels and we decided what’s out there now and can those be modified to meet our needs,” says Julie Felgar, managing director of commercial airplanes environmental strategy and integration at Boeing. “It was one of those kind of things that was right in front our faces, and we wondered why we or others didn’t see it earlier. It’s a case where you can be too innovative sometimes in looking for solutions.”

Use of green diesel for jet fuel awaits regulatory approval, but Felgar and other industry insiders believe there’s a secret weapon to launch the aviation biofuels industry – the Department of Defense.

The U.S. military is the biggest single buyer of fuel on the planet and is eager to substitute homegrown biofuels for imported oil – if the price is right. The Navy has bought small quantities of biofuel and has plans to invest in biofuel production by issuing grants to manufacturers. Wallace Tyner of Purdue has analyzed the effectiveness of contracts versus direct investment and found that a fixed purchase agreement is more effective at stimulating biofuels production and investment. “A contract reduces the risk to investors a hell of lot more,” he says.

Notes Felgar:  “The Navy can use green diesel in their ships and ground fleets. They can drive production capacity and spur investment in other pathways. When policymakers put in place incentives that work well, the industry will take off.”

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