Airline Weekly – Waiting for a Breakthrough

Airline Weekly – October 2012

Both the BBC and The Independent featured stories this week of a British company that has made five liters of drop-in, low-carbon gasoline using air, water and electricity. The company plans to do the same for jet fuel. Again, that’s less than two gallons of fuel made from air and water. So do such fanciful long-shot stories deserve the attention of the aviation community?

Yes.

Jet fuel is without a doubt the aviation industry’s biggest challenge. With high prices reining in the industry for the short term and high emissions posing a longer-term—and perhaps even more suffocating—problem, an alternative liquid fuel (preferably a low-carbon one) is desperately needed. On top of already-high prices, the threat of a 2008-style oil price spike and the damage it would inflict on the industry re-main a clear and present danger. Meanwhile, the urgency of combating climate change is only increasing, with 2012 is shaping up to be the hottest year the U.S. has ever seen. (Globally speaking, 2010 was the hottest on record, and nine of the 10 hottest recorded years globally occurred between 2000 and 2011—the other one was 1998). So there’s reason to expect records will continue to be broken, surely leading to more public and government pressure on airlines to lower their emissions.

While the industry has taken many significant steps to do so, industry leaders consistently say there’s no way commercial aviation will reach its goal of carbon-neutral growth by 2020 without a low-carbon liquid fuel. Another way to look at it: finding an alternative fuel is critically important because if somehow the cost and environmental impact of fuel were taken off the table, it would change everything for the industry. Entire business models would be turned on their heads. The emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes in the E.U., Australia, and New Zealand would be scrapped. New routes would open and frequencies would increase.

All in all the industry would become noticeably bigger, and the world would become smaller. The stakes couldn’t be higher. And that is why every green fuel gambit made in every corner of the world is so interesting. Sure, there will be fly-by-nighters and well-meaning failures. But a breakthrough could change everything. And there’s reason for hope that it will happen. Quite simply, it could happen in so many different ways. Among myriad examples, three particular models demonstrate the creative flexibility the biofuels industry holds.

Trash into treasure

Arguably showing the most immediate promise is Solena Fuels, which will soon be turning municipal solid waste into low-carbon jet fuel at—and here’s the key—commercial scale. Partnering with British Air-ways, Solena’s East London plant should come on line in 2015-16 and is expected to supply up to 16m gallons, or nearly 1% of BA’s fuel needs. That’s not much. But assuming the first plant proves economical and sustainable, it could be replicated. Imagine four more similarly sized plants in the U.K. serving BA. That would mean roughly 3% to 4% of a major airline’s fuel would be coming from a low-carbon source.

If that 3% is replicated at other major airlines, it’s easy to imagine—finally—a measurable dent being made in both aviation’s carbon foot-print and its dependency on petroleum-based fuel. Lufthansa, Alitalia and Qantas have also partnered with Solena, which claims its fuel is already competitive with fossil fuel. How is that possible? Partly be-cause Solena isn’t just selling fuel—it’s selling trash disposal. A big reason the model might work is because Solena collects “tipping fees” that would normally be paid to a landfill. Also, byproducts from the process such as naphtha could be sold for added revenue. Airports tend to be near big cities, and big cities tend to have lots of trash. Solena says there’s no reason a Solena plant couldn’t one day be in every city in the world. But the point is, assuming it succeeds, Solena has found an elegant, synergistic system that can be brought to meaningful scale. Surely, there are more such systems—not miracle crops or technologies—out there waiting to be found.

Groves and fishes

Houston biofuel developer BioPure Fuels and a non-governmental organization, Sustainable Bio Brazil, are working on what could be another such system. Starting with small-scale pilot farms, their aim is to obtain fuel from a reforestation project, perhaps delivering fuel with a negative lifecycle carbon footprint. How? Start with a piece of land that’s been cleared for, say, cattle grazing. Reforest it with a selection of native plants that help each other thrive, and provide multiple revenue streams. In fact, BioPure sats fuel could actually be an afterthought, a nice byproduct of an otherwise viable food and fuel farming business. One native tree that’s a focus of the pilot is macauba, a palm tree that BioPure Fuels says can yield five metric tons of oil per hectare and maybe 10 tons with better breeding. By comparison, soybean oil yields about a half ton. Now, the palm trees throw some shade.

That shade could be used to plant shorter fruit trees such as cacao or acai, which need a tree canopy above them. And in the middle of each 13-hectare plot, a third product can be farmed: fish, such as tilapia. The fish pond will be used for irrigation, and the waste from the fish will be used for fertilization of the fruit and oil trees. Redefining the phrase “economy of scale,” the fish will provide the nitrogen to the farm, which normally would be provided by purchasing fertilizer, one of the bigger financial and carbon “costs” of farming. And completing the cycle, the fish get fed with the meal left over after extracting the oil from the palm’s seeds. In the end, the farmer is selling fruit, fish and fuel—and perhaps earning carbon credits along the way. Hopefully, the combination will take care of the economics. The lifecycle carbon calculation is complex, but the designers of the system think the footprint will be extremely low.

Still, huge questions remain. Can three vastly different products be brought to market competitively? Will environmentalists tolerate palm oil being put in jets? Will funding for commercial scale ever happen? Only time will tell. One thing such a plan has going for it is the species of plants and fish can be tweaked. The pilot projects are already looking at more than one model. And again, that’s the point: a lot of combinations exist.

Another white meat

Another approach with strong similarities to the Brazil project is a plan to harvest halophytes for fuel in Abu Dhabi. Both stories have an aquaculture and food component, and both find synergies in producing multiple products. But the Abu Dhabi project uses a different oil seed plant and doesn’t use farm land. Salicornia is a type of halophyte, or seaweed, tolerant of salt water and containing about one third of its mass as oil. The high oil content and its need for little or no fresh water have attracted biofuel researchers to salicornia in recent years. But this plan starts with a shrimp farm placed near coastal waters, in which sali-cornia would be planted. The waste from the shrimp could then feed the salicornia as fertilizer, while the salicornia cleans the water.

The shrimp could be harvested as food. The salicornia seeds could be harvested for crude oil, the seed husks could providemeal to cycle back to the shrimp and the rest of the plant’s structure would be biomass that could be turned into other energy. The MasdarInstitute of Science and Technology, Etihad, Boeing, and Honeywell UOP helped launch the study a couple years ago. Apparently the early findings are encouraging. Just this month, various media have reported that the initiative is moving from the research phase to a 200-hectare demonstration farm. The farm location could be announced before year’s end.

Biofuels have a huge disadvantage. Petroleum not only enjoys a 100-year head start toward industrialization, but oil—an energy-intense liquid bubbling up out of the ground—was itself a miracle find. It’s laughably hard to compete with and thus easy to write off biofuels. But as the above examples demonstrate, biofuel has at least one thing on its side: a breadth of possibilities. So many variables exist that researchers have room to let their imaginations run. In fact, it’s already evident. The researchers are jumping hurdles as fast as they go up. Notice that all three of these examples, in addition to being low-input and low-carbon, would skirt the food vs. fuel criticism. The Solena project uses trash. And both the Abu Dhabi and Brazil projects would actually produce food, with the Abu Dhabi project even residing on non-arable land and requiring little to no fresh water.

We picked these examples not because they’re any more viable than others (although Solena indeed seems close) but because each is more about a plan than about a miracle technology. These few examples, though, leave out many more feedstocks and technologies, any of which could see a breakthrough: alcohol-to-jet fuel, algae, sugar, jatropha, carinata, woody biomass, animal fats and used cooking oil. And this week, coming from England, we might now have a fuel nearly made out of thin air to add to the list. (The company is called Air Fuel Synthesis and it has brewed a minute amount of gasoline by extracting carbon out of the air and hydrogen out of water. Next they will try a pilot project that produces a metric ton of fuel per day.) Every one of these is another chapter in a long story. Of course, we don’t know how it will end, but what is evident is there’s a lot left to tell, and it’s all rather interesting to boot.