Biofuels News

Below are links to stories about aviation biofuels.

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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New briefing from AEF explains position with UK aviation use of biofuels, and the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation issue

"Sustainable" fuels (largely biofuels, or fuels made from wastes) are viewed, particularly by the aviation industry, as a key component in their plans to keep on growing rapidly. The industry has wildly optimistic hopes about the extent to which these "alternative" fuels will enable the industry to continue expanding but claiming its CO2 emissions are falling. Estimates of how much biofuel will actually be used by 2050 vary greatly from the (frankly crazy) estimate by "Sustainable Aviation" that it will account for 40% of all fuel, to the more realistic estimate by the DfT that it will make up 2.5%. (The Airports Commission believed this might reach 5.6% with government assistance). The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) has produced a useful 2-page briefing, explaining the issues. It is important to note that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that believed UK air passenger numbers could grow by at most 60% of the 2005 level by 2050 keeping within the 37.5MtCO2 cap - assuming 10% use of alternative fuels. (ie. less than 60% if the amount of alternative fuels is lower). The Government will be consulting on possible changes to the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) that could allow producers of aviation biofuel to benefit from the scheme - an effective subsidy. AEF does not support this use of public money, to assist an industry (that pays no VAT or fuel duty) pay its climate costs.

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The collapse of oil prices has killed what little serious interest airlines ever had in biofuels

The aviation industry has tried to persuade itself and others that it can continue increasing its annual jet fuel consumption, but by using biofuels, this can (magically) all be low carbon in future. But biofuels have proved not to be much more than wishful thinking. A long article in Forbes shows just how unlikely biofuels are to be the "get out of jail" card the industry hoped for. The airline industry has so far managed some PR successes in nurturing the perception among the public that biofuels are the solution for "green" aviation, while they have done little more than play around the edges of biofuel experimentation. Forbes says there are main reasons why biofuels won't help. (1). Biofuels are now, and may always be, too expensive. Even before the collapse of oil prices over the last 8 months it had become quite obvious that aviation biofuels aren’t likely to be price-competitive with carbon-based fuels any time in the foreseeable future. (2). Biofuel production is not now, and likely never will be, produced in sufficient volumes. The enormity of the demand makes it practical impossibility. (3) Biofuels are not now, and likely never will be, widely accessible. It concludes: "...airline executives’ legal and practical obligation to their shareholders will prevent them from making any biofuel purchase commitments of significant size."

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Richard Branson wants to fuel his expensive joy-riding “Virgin Galactic” on biofuels ….

Richard Branson is still planning is "Virgin Galactic" so some very rich travellers can be whisked up to edge of space, experience weightless for a short time, and then fly back down again.  Some very expensive joy-riding.  And now he is hoping that his passengers won't have to have any qualms of conscience about the carbon emissions generated by their (pointless) trip. So he is hoping to fuel his planes with biofuel. Quite which biofuel he does not say - probably because there is no fuel that would actually be properly sustainable. If there was such a fuel, it would have to not compete with other crops for land, water or fertiliser; it would have to not compete for space with wildlife and natural habitats; and it would have to have only minimal impacts on aspects of the environment, such as soil structure.  If such a fuel could magically be found (there is no far no such crop in prospect) there is no obvious reason why it should be used to ferry the very rich off on a "bragging-rights" trip - it could be better used for land based vehicles, such as fire engines or ambulances etc. Branson is still hoping to form a base for Virgin Galactic in the UK. He tries to defend his space plans, saying they could eventually lead to a new form of intercontinental travel for the masses via space.

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University of Nevada researchers look to gumweed as military aviation biofuel feedstock

On the trail of finding biofuels that could genuinely be called "sustainable", researchers at a project at the University of Reno, in Nevada, have come up with curly top Gumweed - which is Grindelia squarrosa. The plant grows naturally in arid areas in Nevada, and along the sides of freeways. It can tolerate low levels of water, though it does need water - the university says it needs only one fifth as much as alfalfa. The university is growing a trial crop using minimal water and fertilizer resources. After growing and harvesting the gumweed, it went through biomass processing where it was broken down to liquid that smells like tar. The hope is that the plant would not compete with land or resources for growing food or animal feed. The university claims it can "produce up to 122 gallons per acre on a biennial basis on the semi-arid lands of Nevada." The US military is interested - they are the largest fuel consumer in the United States. The US navy is interested in using it as jet fuel. "The project received $500,000 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture and has the potential to supply up to 20% of fuel demand for the military." The project hopes if "even 10% of sagebrush-covered lands in Nevada are used to grow gumweed for aviation biofuels, 400 to 600 million gallons per year of jet biofuels could be produced." If the price of oil rises enough.

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