Biofuels News

Below are links to stories about aviation biofuels.

Algal biofuel production is neither environmentally nor commercially sustainable – blow to aviation hopes

Modern biofuels have been touted as a greener alternative to petrol and diesel since the early 1900s. Professor Kevin Flynn, of Swansea University, says though it seems like a good idea on paper, and they do work – their use and production doesn’t come without problems. The first generation of biofuels – mainly ethanol made from plant crops – and second generation, derived from plant and animal waste streams, both led to concerns about competition for land and nutrients between biofuels production and food production. It was with a lot of hope, and hype, that production of the third generation of biofuels was started. Unlike their predecessors, these biofuels are derived from algae, and so in theory the food vs fuel dilemma of crop-based biofuels would be solved. Huge sums of money have been spent trying to get the algal marvel to work, refining the engineering process, electrically lighting the crop – which grows in a liquid suspension – harvesting and draining it. However the hype has been misplaced.  Research has found that the production of algal biofuels is neither commercially nor environmentally sustainable. The attainable production levels are a fraction of those that were claimed. The algae cannot produce enough oil, without vast areas, or vast input of fertilisers etc. The process cannot be scaled up adequately.

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RAE report (over) optimistic that 2nd generation transport biofuels will help cut aviation CO2

The Royal Academy of Engineering has produced a report on second generation biofuels, commissioned by the UK’s transport and energy government departments, DfT and BEIS.  It looks at the viability of "sustainable" second generation liquid biofuels, including their use in aviation. The report says the aviation sector, as well as shipping and heavy goods vehicles (which all need a great deal of energy, but cannot use electricity) are considered a priority for the development and use of biofuels. Biofuel is already used in road transport, though it is probably often producing more environmental harm, and more CO2, even than conventional fuels. Little progress has been made on biofuels for aviation and even less for shipping. The industry wants government money to subsidise research into these fuels, to "incentivise the development of second generation biofuels such as those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues."  Just how genuinely "sustainable" environmentally these fuels might ever be is unknown - the early ones were very environmentally harmful. The government is very keen to grow the aviation sector, though aware the carbon emissions from doing so are likely to mean the Climate Change Act is put at risk. So they are placing faith in these (magical) fuels to solve the problems - but it is likely their faith will prove to be misplaced.

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Vegetable oils biofuels should be phased out by 2020 – their CO2 emissions are higher than fossil diesel

The aviation industry has great hopes - unjustifiably - that it will be able to magically locate low carbon "green" fuels in future, that will emit less carbon per litre than fossil jet fuel. Various niche plant oils have been tried, and quietly dropped (the inedible ones that could grow on soils not good enough for human crops are not commercially viable). So far it is not thought that the industry would be so bold as to try to claim use of plant oils like palm oil, rapeseed oil or soya oil could make suitable "sustainable" jet fuels, knowing the bad publicity of burning oils that compete with human food, in jet engines. But plant oils are used in immense amounts as biodiesel for cars and vans, including in Europe. Figures show that this, rather than cutting the overall CO2 emissions (which was the intention by the EU) in practice ends in higher lifecycle emissions than fossil based fuels. On average, biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil leads to around 80% higher CO2 emissions than the fossil diesel. Palm oil has the highest greenhouse gas emissions - about 300% those of fossil diesel - because of deforestation [including habitat and wildlife loss] and peatland drainage needed to set up the plantations, in places like Indonesia. In 2015 46% of all palm oil imported into the EU was burned in vehicles as biodiesel (45% as human or animal food, and 9% burned for electricity or heat.)

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Aviation biofuels: “Won’t get fooled again” – why they will not solve aviation’s CO2 problems

An analyst with Transport & Environment questions whether biofuels could ever make more than a minute impact on aviation carbon emissions. He says we know from past experience with biofuels for road vehicles that they can actually be worse for the environment than the fossil fuels they replace. Unless biofuels are sourced very carefully indeed, they rise causing drastic changes in land use, including deforestation and peatland drainage. Even if biofuels could be produced on land currently used for agriculture, this means there are indirect land use changes (ILUC) meaning that whatever was previously produced there needs to be produced somewhere else. ie. the result may be cutting down forests to create new land to grow crops. Guarantees are needed to ensure that fuels worse than kerosene are not promoted - in terms of carbon emissions, but also loss of wildlife or violation of human rights. "The aviation sector often hypes up a new technology as the solution to its climate problem, only to admit that it is not feasible or prohibitively expensive. It quickly moves on to another ‘solution’. All this serves to convince policymakers that sustainable aviation is around the corner. Biofuels may be the latest example of this strategy." Aviation biofuels, at a very minimum, must be better on carbon and environmental impact than fuels they replace.

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Arlanda airport offering 10% biofuel from American used cooking oil, in “symbolic” initiative

The only form of biofuel that airlines have been able to use, and make credible claims that the fuel is low carbon, is used cooking oil. No other forms of fuel made from biological sources can be produced without negative environmental impacts. Therefore Stockholm's Arlanda airport has had to turn to American used cooking oil, in its attempt to get jet biofuel for its public relations purposes. Arlanda is now using 10% cooking oil, from SkyNRG and Air BP, in Los Angeles (flown over, presumably?) to be put towards fuel for flights made by Swedavia staff. Swedavia is the Swedish state-owned organization that owns and operates 10 airports in Sweden. The quantities of the new fuel are tiny in relation to all the fuel used at the airport, and are seen as symbolic. But Swedavia, SAS Scandinavian Airlines and other airlines are keen to see more use of biofuel, as they hope this will be considered to be cutting their carbon emissions. However, the costs of any biofuel are high, and it is not commercially viable. The industry is keen to get government subsidies to develop more biofuels, to give the impression the industry is environmentally responsible. Biofuels for aviation are, in reality, a "red herring" achieving very little in terms of carbon, or environmental footprint.

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DfT consultation about subsidising development of biofuels for aviation, through RTFO

The DfT has published a consultation (ending 22nd January 2017) on “The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order. (RTFO) Proposed amendments.” Its aim is to encourage development of biofuels for transport, in the hope that transport can continue to expand but its carbon emissions will be slightly reduced. The DfT's John Hayes says: "Our strategy is therefore to provide a positive investment environment beyond 2020 to further encourage the development of waste-based and advanced fuels, while limiting the use of fuels made from crops." They are partly aware of the adverse impacts from ILUC (indirect land use impacts) of many biofuels, which have the effect of shifting damage and ultimately competing with land for food, or causing deforestation. The DfT is keen to boost biofuels for aviation. They say: "We wish to promote the development of sustainable renewable fuel for aviation ... We propose to extend eligibility for reward under the RTFO to both renewable avtur and renewable avgas. ...." ie. they get money back, effectively as a subsidy for these fuels. (Avtur is normal jet fuel, and avgas is largely for general aviation). The DfT proposes to "reward renewable aviation fuels under the RTFO" and "suppliers would be able to claim Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates (RTFCs) for eligible fuel."

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Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech hope to produce jet fuel from waste CO from steel mills

Back in October 2011, Virgin Atlantic announced it was working with LanzaTech (which describes itself as a company that sees waste CO2 as an opportunity, not a liability) to produce a low carbon jet fuel, from waste carbon monoxide from steel works. The hope was for rapid progress. Now Richard Branson has announced that the plant has produced 1,500 US gallons of jet fuel from ‘Lanzanol’ - LanzaTech’s low carbon ethanol. The fuel is made by trapping waste gases from steel mills, and "fermenting" them in a manner that is not described, to produce ethanol. (Some work at Stanford University in 2014 suggested CO and water could be combined to make ethanol using a specially formulated copper catalyst. Link ) Virgin says the alcohol can be converted (not a cheap process) into jet fuel, and hopes it will "result in carbon savings of 65% compared to conventional jet fuel." A benefit would be if the CO2 is not released from the chimneys of steel mills into the atmosphere. Virgin hopes for a "proving flight" in 2017 using the fuel, and in due course LanzaTech would fund and build their first commercial jet fuel plant "hopefully in the UK, to supply fuel to Virgin Atlantic and other airlines." And then that there might eventually be "15 billion gallons of jet fuel per year." There is no obvious reason, if this sort of fuel can be made, why it would be for aviation - rather than for important terrestrial uses.

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US airline JetBlue deal to buy about 10 million gallons of HEFA biojet fuel per year for 10 years

JetBlue Airways, a US low cost airline, will be buying biofuels from biofuel provider SG Preston for at least 10 years, in a deal announced recently. JetBlue will buy over 33 million gallons of blended jet fuel per year, consisting of 30% hydro-processed esters and fatty-acids (HEFA) renewable jet fuel blended with 70% traditional Jet-A fuel. […]

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The high flown fantasy of aviation biofuels – Blog by Biofuelwatch

In a blog, Almuth Ernsting, Co-Director of Biofuelwatch, explains some of the issues with aviation biofuels, and the problems of ICAO hoping aviation can use them to get off the carbon "hook". The reality is that only a tiny number of flights have been made using biofuels, with the only ones claiming to be genuinely "sustainable" being those derived from used cooking oil. There are various ways of making jet fuels out of biofuel, with the most successful and commercially viable one being HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) or HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids). Other processes are based on gasification and Fischer-Tropsch reforming; farnesene which is produced from sugar using GM yeast; and producing fuel from bio-isobutanol. HVO production is relatively straightforward, cheaper than the others, and already happening on a commercial scale. However HVO relies largely for its feedstock on vegetable oil, though tallow and tall oil can also be used. In Europe, HVO production is heavily reliant on palm oil, with its well known environmental /deforestation problems. Airlines have so far been careful to avoid sourcing biofuels from palm oil, fearing bad publicity. Greater aviation biofuel use, from any vegetable oil, is likely to drive up demand and push up the global price of vegetable oils - making land conversion, particularly in the tropics even more lucrative.

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Aviation low carbon future using biofuel from wood waste described as a “pipe dream”

Plans to cut airline CO2 using jet fuels made from waste wood have been dismissed as a "pipe dream" and "fairytale stuff" and unrealistic by environmentalists. ICAO anticipates a trebling of CO2 emissions from aviation by 2050 if nothing is done to restrict it. It is attempting to develop long term plan to ensure that, by 2050, net aviation emissions will be half of what they were in 2005. One of the key parts of that plan is "green" jet fuel. Earlier this year the FAA authorised a new biofuel made from a type of alcohol called isobutanol, which companies are hoping to make from wood pulp treated with enzymes to produce sugars. Then genetically modified yeast produce isobutanol from the sugars. Another process then converts the isobutane into high octane fuel. If this fuel was made of just forestry residue, rather than purposely felled trees, it could be considered to be "sustainable" with probably low environmental impact. Bill Hemmings of T&E believes these fuels are far too expensive, and they are not - and will not - deliver the emissions reductions that would justify the investment. ICAO's dream of halving the level of 2005 aviation CO2 missions by 2050 depends on a rapid uptake of genuinely low carbon and "green" fuels. That would need an improbable 170 large scale bio-refineries to be built every year between 2020 and 2050, at a cost of up to $60 billion per year.

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