Slowly but surely, an extraordinarily important new industry is slowly taking shape, with the potential to transform the global economy.
After years of existing largely as an environmentalist's fantasy, commercial production of biofuels for the world civil aviation industry is slowly becoming a fact, with production starting up across three continents.
The leading contenders for biofuel feedstocks are jatropha and camelina, both of which have their fervent supporters. While currently neither is capable of production at a price approaching that of Jet A1 civil aviation fuel derived from hydrocarbons, research and extensive investment are nevertheless investigating the possibilities.
While little is certain in the emerging picture, it is increasingly clear that despite the United States being one of the leading producers currently of renewable energy in the form of ethanol, that the United States nevertheless will be an also-ran in these developments.
In January 2010 Qatar Airways revealed plans to work with Airbus and other Qatari state entities to draw up "a detailed engineering and implementation plan for economically viable and sustainable biofuel production." At an event marking the launch of the Qatar Advanced Biofuel Platform consortium, airline chief Akbar al Baker hailed its European project partner as "more proactive than Boeing in experimenting with alternative fuels."
Fast forward to this March, when a European consortium of Airbus, Romanian state-owned airline Tarom, Honeywell’s UOP and CCE (Camelina Company España) announced plans to establish a bio-fuel production center in Romania to manufacture civil aviation fuel, using camelina as a feedstock.
Farther east, last month China National Petroleum Corp. announced that it had delivered 15 tons of jatropha oil to help Air China operate the country's maiden biofuel-powered test flight, tentatively scheduled for later this year. According to a posting on its website, CNPC, Asia's largest oil producer, is proving that it has the ability to produce biofuel from non-grain feedstocks to clean up the environment.
On Monday, Mozambique's Agencia Informacao Mocambique news agency announced that Sun Biofuels Mozambique, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Sun Biofuels, has exported the first batch of 30 tons of jatropha oil produced from its fields in the central Mozambican province of Manica to Germany’s Lufthansa airline.
The biggest single impetus to the development of biofuels for civil aviation occurred on 8 June, when the international standards certifying body ASTM International announced its approval of its BIO SPK Fuel Standard, to be made official later in the year, allowing the use of hydro-treated renewable jet (HRJ) Jet A-1 fuel in commercial aviation.
Currently these biofuels are “drop ins,” and must be blended in a 50-50 mixture with Jet A-1 fuel derived from traditional fossil fuel kerosene.
The biggest single independent meant at present to a wide scale production of jet biofuel is its inordinate cost. Biojet fuel delivered last year to the U.S. armed forces for evaluation cost more than $70 a gallon to produce, a price which obviously makes it at present supremely uncompetitive with fuel derived from traditional hydrocarbon sources. Supporters of biofuel production argue that processing costs will decrease in direct proportion to rising volumes of production.
Both Brazil and the United States have viable biofuel production in the form of ethanol, in the case of Brazil derived from sugar cane, in the United States, produced from corn.
Ironically it is the very success of this production in the United States that will limit the near term growth of an alternative renewable fuels industry, because the ethanol lobby has ensured the farmers not only receive significant subsidies, but crop insurance as well, neither of which is available to other farmers wishing to dabble in the production of biofuel from camelina or other assorted feedstocks. These limitations exist despite the fact that the U.S. is the world leader in camelina research.
What is clear at this juncture however is the fact that renewable biojet fuels have been certified, and furthermore, that production is beginning, albeit at on a limited scale with relatively high production costs.
As noted earlier in this article, a critical momentum is building on three continents to advance production of biofuels, and when major players such as Airbus become involved, the viability of such projects is no longer in question, only the timeline.
Last but not least, an additional benefit of biofuels in a world concerned about global warming and emissions of greenhouse gases is that biofuels reduce carbon emissions by jet aircraft by up to 80 percent.
The technology is in place, the product has been certified, and at the end of the day, one is talking about an agricultural product which, depending on where it is sown, can produce one or even two harvests a year.
While discussion rages about the production of biofuels in poorer nations having the possibility of diverting land needed for food production, in terms of energies impact on the environment, biofuels are certainly more benign than other more traditional forms of energy as evidenced in the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or more recently, in the March nuclear debacle in Japan.
Biofuels are clean, green, and… for the moment, expensive.