Biofuels News

Below are links to stories about aviation biofuels.

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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Energy Secretary Amber Rudd admits misleading Parliament about missing 25% green energy undershoot

A letter from Energy Secretary Amber Rudd leaked to The Ecologist shows that she misled Parliament by promising the UK was 'on course' to deliver on its renewable energy targets (15% of final energy consumption from renewables by 2020) - when in fact there is a delivery shortfall in 2020 of almost 25%. Her plan to fill the gap relies on more biofuels, buying in green power and 'credits' from abroad - everything but wind and solar. She says: "The trajectory currently leads to a shortfall against the target in 2020 of around 50 TWh or 3.5% points in our internal central forecasts (which are not public). Publicly we are clear that the UK continues to make progress to meet the target." However, she has told the House of Commons that the UK is still meeting renewables targets. This puts the UK at risk of legal action taken in the UK, and fines imposed by the European Court of Justice. There could be a full Parliamentary investigation. She also has a problem with hoping that by 2020 biofuels will make up 10% of transport fuels, due to conflicts of deforestation and conflict with land for agriculture. [If the UK is not able to meet its carbon targets, in its carbon budgets, it is not possible for aviation to increase its annual CO2 emissions above 37.5MtCO2. Failure of other sectors to make cuts put the weak aviation target in question.]

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Solena, the company meant to be producing jet fuel from London waste for BA, goes bankrupt

In February 2010 it was announced that British Airways had teamed up with American bioenergy company Solena Group to establish “Europe's first” sustainable jet fuel plant, which was set to turn London'd domestic waste into aviation fuel. The plan was for BA to provide construction capital for a massive plant somewhere in East London. BA committed to purchasing all the jet fuel produced by the plant, around 16 million gallons a year, for the next 11 years at market competitive prices. BA had hoped that this 2% contribution to its fuel consumption - the equivalent to all its fuel use at London City airport - would give it green credibility, and it would claim it cut its carbon emissions. The timescale for the plant to be built kept slipping. Nothing has been heard of it for a long time. Now it has been announced that Solena has gone into bankruptcy in the USA. It was never clear why, if genuinely low carbon fuels could be produced from London's waste, why these should not be used for essential vehicles in London - and why they would instead become a PR exercise for an airline. British Airways and the company Velocys are listed as creditors of Solena.

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Project to grow “Solaris” tobacco in South Africa for bio jet fuel earns RSB certification

Project Solaris is a project in South Africa trying to grow a variety of tobacco, to produce "bio jet fuel". It was announced in December that some 50 hectares were being grown. Oil is derived mainly from the leaves, rather than the seeds. Now the promoters of the technology, Sunchem, says they have earned the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) certification, for environmental and social sustainability, for the production of 'Solaris' tobacco in the Limpopo region of South Africa. They hope growing this tobacco will bring economic and rural development to the Limpopo province, as well as being a new regional bio jet fuel supply chain. The MD of Sunchem South Africa says developing a biofuel in South Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ has - inevitably - drawn the company into the food vs fuel debate. They hope they can persuade people that the crop will not affect food security or lead to environmental degradation. However, growing tobacco inevitably completes with food – as the crop needs water and fertiliser to grow economically. If the land is good enough to grow tobacco profitably, it is good enough to grow food. It is therefore diverting land away from food production. It also has the ILUC effect of an ever greater area of land in total to come under cultivation.

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Attempts to make “sustainable” jet fuel by using waste bagasse from Brazilian sugarcane

The global aviation industry hopes for over 4% growth per year, but gains in efficiency are around 1% per year. Hence the sector's CO2 emissions will increase. Attempts continue to be made to try and locate some sustainable sources of fuel, which could genuinely cause less carbon to be produced, over its whole life-cycle. This has so far been unsuccessful. For any fuel to be commercially viable, it has to use resources or land, which competes with human food. This is in part accounted for as ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change) effects. There are new claims that jet fuel could be made using sugarcane biomass, waste bagasse, and sugarcane could be grown on "marginal land." However, sugarcane would inevitably grow better on higher quality land, with more fertiliser and more water - and if that was applied, the land could be used for food. Often land termed marginal is, in reality, used by local people. The new enthusiasm for jet fuel involves using bagasse to make oils rather than ethanol. That inevitably means depletion of soil nutrients, as the plant waste is removed and not ploughed back into the soil. The team working on the sugar fuel hope their findings would ultimately be adopted by commercial fuel producers, and they have a patent on the technology.

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