Efforts in Overcoming the High Cost of Biofuels

Today, the use of biofuels in aviation is becoming more commonplace. Several companies have slowly been integrating the use of biofuels in their engines for many years already. This drive for biofuel advancement is largely because of the rising petroleum prices and petroleum supply becoming more limited every day. The promotion of biofuels has also been driven by policy from the Obama Administration. The United States secretary of agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, has been traveling the country, promoting the use of plant fuel in airplanes.

However, a main impediment to widespread use of biofuels is its cost. According to airlines, aircraft companies and suppliers, biofuels costs more than double than fuel made from petroleum [1]. Vilsack, who spoke at the Boeing headquarters in Chicago in early January, said the cost in harvesting and delivering feedstock for biorefineries was the main problem [2].

A way that can help to drive down the cost could be focusing on the plants made into fuel. A high quality biofuel crop, jatropha, has been widely used because it is seen as the most cost-effective and sustainable feedstock for jet fuel [4]. It is a tropical shrub with an oil-rich nut. When the seeds of jatropha are crushed, triglyceride is produced, which is an oil that can be converted to diesel fuel or jet fuel at biorefineries. The special characteristic of using jatropha in jet fuels is that it does not require engines to be adjusted or any special distribution systems. However, jatropha has a lower energy per unit volume than normal jet fuel derived from petroleum. The biofuel can decrease carbon dioxide emissions by about 60 percent, gallon for gallon [1].

German carrier, Lufthansa, used a 50 percent biofuel mix in one of the two engines of their Airbus A321and completed more than 800 flights successfully. The biofuel mix contained a certain amount of jatropha. In effort to drive down costs of using jatropha, a San Diego company, SG Biofuels, planned to announce $17 million in “new financing from venture capital sources to continue its work on raising the yields from jatropha [1].” SG Biofuels has developed ways to increase to yield of jatropha by engineering genes among strains. They reported that they have already raised yields from 250 to 350 gallons per acre of jatropha oil [1].

Lufthansa's Airbus A321 using a 50 percent biofuel mix containing jatropha.

I believe that even though the cost has been limiting the widespread use of biofuels, our country will develop new ways to overcome this. The reason is because I have seen numerous measures the government has passed in regards to this. The Obama administration has initiated significant efforts to help promote biofuels in military and civil aviation. Some evidence showing the efforts in effect is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Navy has invested as much as $510 million over three years to spur the development of biofuels for commercial and military transportation [5]. In addition, The USDA has already developed a program to “incentivize hundreds of growers and landowners farming nearly 50,000 acres to provide biomass to energy conversion facilities [2]”. In addition, in March 22, 2012, President Obama announced that the government will provide $35 million over three years through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) to support research and development of advanced biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products. BRDI is a joint program of the USDA and U.S. Energy Department (DOE) [3].

Therefore, through the significant investment that SG Biofuels has made for jatropha, and the joint effort in the Obama Administration to overcome impediments, it seems that biofuels can become widespread over the country. However, this will take several years and depends on how much policy decisions are carried through.

[1] Wald, M. (January 14, 2012). On the Horizon, Planes Powered by Plant Fuel. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/on-the-horizon-planes-powered-by-plant-fuel/?ref=biofuels

[2] Vilsack meets with Boeing, Honeywell to review, promote aviation biofuels. (January 17, 2012). Biofuels Digest. Retrieved from http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2012/01/17/vilsack-meets-with-boeing-honeywell-to-review-promote-aviation-biofuels/

[3] U.S. Department of Energy. (March 22, 2012). Obama Administration to Fund Next Generation Biofuels Research. Retrieved from http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/news/daily.cfm/hp_news_id=345

[4] Kolesnikov-Jessop, S. (October 25, 2011). Flying With Biofuel Gets One Step Closer. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/business/energy-environment/flying-with-biofuel-gets-one-step-closer.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ref=biofuels

[5] United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Highlights U.S. Navy Biofuels Partnership at Pearl Harbor, Obama Administration’s Commitment to Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2012/01/0004.xml&contentidonly=true


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