EADS Backs Algae As Future Biofuel
jet fuel, arguing that other feedstocks will not allow the airline industry to
meet its carbon-footprint reduction goals.
biofuels now under development offer sufficient life-cycle, carbon-dioxide reductions
to replace petroleum-based jet fuel.
need to push third-generation biofuels made from algae." Proponents argue only algae can be produced without competing with food for land
promise substantial life-cycle carbon dioxide reductions, CO2 is still produced
during the processing of the oil into jet fuel. "To grow algae, you need a lot
of CO2. If you can sequester the CO2 [from fuel production], you can use it to
grow the algae, so the total value chain is a balanced equation. You do not produce
more CO2," he says.
are the architects and we have to push the industry to align with the aircraft
of the future," says Botti. "Third-generation biofuels are the Plan B to kerosene."
into algae-derived fuels is less advanced.
algae by 2030. "The first studies show it to be a very compatible fuel, requiring minimum
changes to the engine," he says.
to pursue new biofuel research initiatives, reflecting an intensification of concern
about future availability of alternative fuels in the quantities required by aviation.
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
in the establishment of a biofuel-focused research institute in Abu Dhabi, along
with Honeywell fuel technology subsidiary UOP and two local partners: the Masdar
Institute of Science & Technology and
of seawater farming as a means of growing mangrove forests and salicornia, a salt-tolerant
plant, as a biofuel feedstock.
2010. Global Seawater, a “special adviser” to the SBRP team, was originally lined
up to supply the required feedstock, but
manufacturer CFM International, is the first alternative fuel project involving
a Latin American airline, and follows biofuel demonstration flights conducted
Airways’ planned demonstration flight, also scheduled for early 2010, has also
been postponed. Partnering Airbus and International Aero Engines, the New York-based
low-cost airline has considered a range of potential feedstocks, including jatropha,
algae, waste forest residues, organic waste streams and the non-edible component
of corn, corn stover.
might be produced to conduct a meaningful flight, but we will continue to monitor
potential suppliers in the pursuit of our objective,” the airline told Flightglobal’s
Air Transport Intelligence online news service.
Airbus, says the airframer’s senior vice-president of public affairs Rainer Ohler.
“The problem is the availability of biofuel.”
some industry players have been exercised by a perceived lack of biofuel-related
support from nation states. At an
general Giovanni Bisignani
whose organisation believes that biofuel’s lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions
could be 80% lower than those of traditional jet fuel. “Look at the car industry,”
he said. “They have received billions of dollars of bailout. We are working hard
to have a greener kind of environment in aviation and we have not received one
penny from governments [for] testing biofuels.”
annual fuel bill of $120 billion yielded a refinery margin of $9 billion. He suggested
some of these funds could be devoted to the “small entrepreneurs” developing biofuel
farms “to help them speed the process”.
since certification of such fuels appears likely to be secured by the end of the
year. Airbus is confident of biofuel availability within “five or 10 years”, but
believes governments need to nominate aviation as a “preferred biofuel user” with
a priority of access to fuel over other industries. “Aviation simply has no alternatives
to biofuel,” argues Ohler.
on solar power or long extension cords any time soon,” notes Billy Glover, managing
director of environmental strategy at Boeing. “If you think about how much biofuel
it would take to power electricity generation or cars and trucks… it doesn’t
make sense to produce enough feedstock for all that.” Echoing his peers, Glover
identifies a need for governments to “take a more proactive stance towards developing
sustainable aviation biofuels”.
the third Aviation & Environment Summit in Geneva in 2008, the environment
joined safety among issues considered to transcend the competitive joust between
the companies. “We are not competing on engine technologies and we’re not competing
on the fuel,” says Ohler. “We’re competing on the best aircraft.”
biofuel, there appear to be points of consensus among the stakeholders. One is
that multiple feedstocks and a distributed process will be required, since aviation’s
requirement is huge, and the ease with which a particular feedstock can be grown
varies by region and climate. As Glover puts it: “A good feedstock for Abu Dhabi
is not the same as a good feedstock for the southern USA – or China.”
or third generation: in other words, their production must not interfere with
food or freshwater supply, unlike first-generation fuels such as those based on
sugar, corn, palm oil or soya.
“We’re sort of in a catch-22,” says Holmgren. “If you’re going to use bio fuels
based on feedstocks that are not used for food why the heck would a farmer grow
a feedstock that isn’t for food?”
until guaranteed availability of sustainable feedstock, Holmgren adds. “If the
governments don’t step in and take a step that incentivises both sides [farmers
and commercial producers], you’re sort of in this hole of who’s going to take
that first move,” she concludes.
eventually getting to commercially viable cost”, and getting there will require
the use not just of numerous feedstock types, but of innovative farming methods,
by Holmgren’s account.
the biomass necessary to have a real impact,” she says, while explaining UOP’s
role in the salicornia-focused SBRP initiative. “This particular case [involves]
growing the feedstock in land that would not be traditionally used for feedstock
growth. Nobody grows feedstock in the desert, basically. This is in a coastal
plain area, on seawater, using seawater, so you’re not competing for land, you’re
not competing for fresh water, and you’re growing something where normally you
would not grow something.”
into biofuel, producing about 227,000 litres (60,000USgal) of the latter to assist
both the commercial and military aviation industries in “platform certification”
projects. In the normal run of its business, UOP tends not to produce fuel itself,
but rather license its technology to refining customers such as Shell and ExxonMobil.
Within the nascent biofuels business, however, UOP has looked to take the initiative
and produce fuel itself. “I didn’t want to have to sell the vision to a refiner,”
biofuel availability. “There are so many available, sustainable feedstocks,” she
says. “I get extremely nervous that this discussion of lack of feedstocks is,
in some ways, almost a call for inaction.” She adds: “That’s what this Masdar
project is about; it’s saying: ‘Here’s a place nobody thought about – we can create
feedstocks here.’ That doesn’t mean that every feedstock has to be developed.
There’s already a sustainable outturn of crops.”
in hundreds-of-millions-of-gallon quantities and can be at the billion-gallon
level in the next two to three years”, says Holmgren. She cites also the fact
that the camelina and jatropha plants have been successfully deployed as feedstocks
for biofuel test flights.
in January 2009, while in November, KLM operated a
traditional Jet-A. Subsequently, the Dutch carrier unveiled a new joint venture,
Spring Associates. SkyEnergy is tasked with creating a commercially viable alternative
jet fuel that, in adherence with the prevailing orthodoxy, does not jeopardise
the food chain or cause deforestation or excessive water consumption.
and society at large must now join forces to ensure that we quickly gain access
to a continuous supply of biofuel.”
of plant-based, oil-seed-bearing feedstocks such as jatropha and pongomia. “Most
work has been done to date using essentially wild strains and it’s no surprise
that you run into difficulty on yields and therefore economics,” says Phil Hopton,
a partner in Seattle-based biofuel research company Verno Systems. “The issues
around those plant-oil-based fuels are all around, essentially, the agronomy of
growing the plant.”
they “constantly reproduce and therefore grow”, adds Hopton. Here, however, physical
constraints apply, as the open ponds required to grow algae have a high surface
area. Additionally, specialised technology is required to facilitate photosynthesis.
There are also obstacles to overcome in the area of dewatering, which “can be
an expensive and not very environmentally friendly process”, says Hopton. “There’s
a whole range of challenges,” he concludes. “They all require investment, clearly.”
and develop fuels based on photosynthetic algae. The programme budget anticipated
$600 million of investment by ExxonMobil, which vowed to lend engineering and
scientific expertise “throughout the programme, from the development of systems
to increase the scale of algae production through the manufacturing of finished
a source of aviation biofuel, albeit on the more distant horizons of an industry
in which long-term time scales are taken as read.
that scale production was eight to 10 years away. UOP’s Holmgren similarly considers
availability of algae in mass quantities to be up to a decade away, although she
specifies a more optimistic five- to 10-year time frame and says: “There’s a couple
of people who may surprise us and come in a little bit under.”
conference in Copenhagen in December.
with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (ASTAR). As part
of the project, unveiled earlier this month, EADS and ASTAR will also investigate
methods of converting the microalgae oil to fuel.
likely to flare up. Hopton lists questions to be answered. “Will biofuels sell
at the same price as crude-oil-based fuels? Will they sell at a premium in that
they’re carbon neutral? And who will control that pricing?”
– albeit a global and dispersed one – feeding biofuels into this industry, as
compared with many others, may be relatively uncomplicated.
of aviation biofuels, to judge from
on the current EU ETS price for carbon in 2012 of €15 ($20) and 2009 average jet
fuel price of $1.69/USgal, every gallon of jet fuel burned would incur carbon
costs of an additional $0.21, which is a total cost of $1.34 billion across the
industry,” it calculates. “This is a premium of 12.4% that would not apply to
assumption that biofuels’ share will be 15% in 2020 and 30% in 2030 – the EU aviation
industry could avoid 35 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions in the former year and
100 million tonnes in the latter. The savings on carbon expense would be, respectively,
$2.01 billion and $5.83 billion.
now are: can governments afford to take a long-term view and support their development?
And can they afford not to?
Additional reporting by Megan Kuhn and Brendan Sobie in Washington DC
industry can make more profit in future by using them.