Biofuels – A Practical Alternative

Use of biodiesel on aircraft has become an increasingly more popular notion with airlines and the public alike, as the world looks to make a shift to a cleaner energy future.  The airline industry is notorious for its high carbon emissions, but with the introduction of biofuel, it seems to provide the perfect platform for a growth in industry, coupled with more sustainable practices [1].

 

Alaska airlines has been the most recent and notable example of commercial airlines using biofuel to operate their aircraft.  Their push to use biofuel now is counter to sound economic practices for the company, as the costs of biofuel are over 5 times more expensive than regular jet fuel [2].  Still, companies are starting to realize more and more that there is great potential in this industry, and it very well may lead the way as the central fuel source for aircraft in the coming decades.

 

The long held argument against biofuels was that they require far too much water and land to be farmed in quantities capable of sustaining the planet’s current needs [3].   This argument was based on data derived from the production of corn for ethanol; corn, however, is certainly not the only source from which biofuels can be harvested.

 

Scientists are now researching the feasibility of producing halophytes, to be converted into biofuels.  Halophytes are plants that can be grown in a wide array of different climate conditions, with the great benefit being that they can be sustained using ocean saltwater, as opposed to freshwater [4].  With the world facing large scale drought issues, having a plant that can grow using saltwater and be used to power aircraft would be a huge step forward environmentally.

 

As the world becomes ever more globalized and connected, the use of, and reliance upon aircraft will continue to increase.  Issues with emissions are well founded and need addressing, however airline companies have to worry about costs as well, which often run counter to environmental concerns.  Now, however, with the increased feasibility of biofuels, the airline industry could spawn the growth of a new, biofuel harvesting industry.  Moreover, as more countries begin to levy high taxes on carbon emissions, biofuels will likely prove to become a cost effective means of powering aircraft, as opposed to an overly priced alternative.

[1] http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2011/11/07/race-for-scale-united-alaska-airlines-launch-commercial-aviation-biofuels-flights/

[2] http://www.wired.com/autopia/2011/11/alaska-airlines-begins-scheduled-service-burning-biofuel/

[3] http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12039&page=45

[4] http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/biofuel-for-airplanes-perhaps-sooner-than-we-think.html

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3 responses to “Biofuels – A Practical Alternative

  1. I think you have a good point here. Approximately 97% of water on Earth are saline and ~40% of Earth’s landmass is arid or semi-arid [1]. If we can use these resources to grow plants for biofuel, freshwater and crop lands can be freed up for agricultural purpose and feed people rather than airplanes. Also, this could lead to decontamination of soils and desalinating brackish water.

    Jet fuels are very specific in the physical properties that they hold — the freezing point, flashpoint temperature, autoignition temperature, etc. [2] These properties are import for the safety of handling and transportation while airborne as well as the efficiency and energy output. I have looked around but find it difficult to find comparisons of the mileage of pure jet fuel versus blended with biofuel. I read that Lufthansa has had successful long-term trial runs using synthetic biofuel blended with jet fuel for their airbus. [3] The synthetic biofuel is composed of “camelina oil (80%), with some jatropha (15%) and animal fat” [4] as opposed to the proposed halophytes in your blog entry. Research shows that camelina seeds thrive in semi-arid conditions and requires little water or nitrogen to flourish, and thus is also under the spotlight for potential biofuel feedstock. Perhaps halophytes will be able to replace camelina as the lead carbon reducer in biofuel?

    [1] http://atlanticgreenfuels.com/Hendricks_Alternative_Fueled_Flight_April_2008.pdf
    [2] http://www.shell.com/home/content/aviation/products/fuels/types/civil_jet_fuel_grades/
    [3] http://konzern.lufthansa.com/en/themen/biofuel.html
    [4] http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_generic.jsp?channel=aviationdaily&id=news/avd/2011/07/18/12.xml

  2. cgl332

    To comment on the practicality of biofuels, I absolutely agree with all of the above statements about aviation biofuels. Aviation biofuels are one of the up and coming ways by which the aviation and aircraft industry can decrease its carbon footprint. Airlines and aircrafts are releasing 20 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than previously estimated. It is now estimated that the amount released could be around 1.5 billion tons within the next two decades. How much is 1.5 billion tons? The European Union, currently, emits 3.1 billion tons. The aviation industry will emit half of what 27 nations emit together! [1]

    Reducing the carbon footprint due to air travel is a rapidly spreading idea and is a very important task. However, on the other hand, the aviation carbon footprint only accounts for 2 to 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Road travel accounts for 13 percent and building light and heat account for 20 percent. So although the aviation should be emphasized, there are lots of other industries and areas that also need to be considered and kept in mind.

    The aviation industry is taking many steps to improve and reduce petroleum consumption. In November of last year, Continental Airlines was the first to fly using “genetically modified algae [2].” Continental Airlines also planned to buy 20 million gallons a year of biofuel from a California company called Solazyme [2]. Although this amount sounds like a lot, it is deceiving, since it only accounts for .6 % of the airline’s fuel consumption. There are, however, other important alternatives to reducing the aviation carbon source. For example, “flying slower” can help reduce emissions. Scandinavian airlines discovered that reducing the aircraft speed from 860 km to 780 km reduces the amount emitted by 420 kg. There are also different studies being done to find the optimal weather and route to reduce fuel consumption [3].

    Another way to reduce consumption is to use taxes. Although this approach is controversial, it is just meant as another example that can be used to reduce fuel consumption. Biofuels are important, but it is not the only way. A mixture of different approaches can be used to reduce the aviation footprint. The European Union recently was under public attack for charging carbon emissions on flights beyond its borders [4]. The tax is under attack because other countries do not want to be taxed on emissions outside of the EU airspace. The EU claims that airlines won’t have to pay as much if they “become more efficient [4].”

    Many of the different aviation companies have started using aviation biofuels and I agree, it is a great alternative. It has many advantages, the main, that it reduces the carbon footprint and it is the same as petroleum in terms of performance. However, it is also important to look at other ways to reduce emissions such as flying slower or creating taxes. Other industries should also be looked at because aviation only accounts for 2 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions.

    [1] http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/05/airline-emissio/
    [2] http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/11/business/la-fi-biofuel-airlines-20111111
    [3] http://www.iccaworld.com/nlps/story.cfm?nlpage=215
    [4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/20/eu-airline-carbon-tax-politics_n_1367155.html

  3. jgl687

    The U.S. airline industry’s response to the EU’s carbon dioxide Emissions Trading System leads me to believe that voluntary use of biofuels at even a slightly higher price is still far off. Although, this opens the door for a carrier to be seen as the “Green” provider while the rest of the U.S. airlines fight against cleaner emissions standards. Making the gradual switch to biofuels to voluntarily reduce the carbon emissions before the rest of the airlines are mandated to do so could be a good move for an airline looking to differentiate itself. The higher cost of using mixed biofuels to reduce emissions can be offset by charging higher prices. The customer value proposition of providing cleaner transportation when compared to other U.S. providers allows the airline to charge a slightly higher price per ticket.

    European airlines are behind the carbon emissions cap as all 27 of the European Union countries back the Emissions Trade System (ETS) on airlines but there are 20 other countries that are adamantly opposed to it. Russia, China, and the U.S. are among the largest countries opposed to the new standards.[1] With such large powers against the measure, which went into place on January 1st of 2012, to include airlines in the EU’s ETS system it may be amended as talks of possible trade wars escalate. The ETS requires all airlines flying in or out of airports in the EU region to pay a tax on the CO2 emitted by the aircraft. The ultimate goal is to encourage airlines to voluntarily become more efficient so that the tax paid will be reduced. [2]

    Airlines can either join the fight against the EU’s ETS system or embrace it to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. There is a growing consumer base that will pay more for an environmentally friendly product which could more than offset the additional cost of using cleaner fuel. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes this opportunity to innovate or if all the airlines choose to fight the battle for status qou.

    [1] http://www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/personal-finance/eus-carbon-offset-programme-for-air-travel-could-cause-trade-war

    [2] http://www.foxbusiness.com/news/2012/03/27/airlines-call-on-us-to-fight-eu-over-carbon-trading-market/

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