Fuelling the future
Betty Low

Tony Tyler, director general and CEO of IATA (the International Air Transport Organisation), the trade body for the world's airlines, told delegates to the Aviation Fuel Forum in Berlin in May, "Our licence to grow is contingent on our ability to do so sustainably."

The combination of pressure to reduce carbon emissions and the escalating cost of aviation fuel has prompted many carriers to explore the possibility of substituting biofuels as an alternative.

The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group is focused on accelerating the development of commercially viable and sustainable aviation biofuels. Members include Air France, Air New Zealand, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Gulf Air, KLM, Qantas, Qatar, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Many are investing heavily in projects to develop biofuels.

IATA supports the research, development and deployment of alternatives to fossil fuels but says "The main challenges to a wide deployment of biojets are not technical, but commercial and political."

At present, like all new products in their infancy, there is not huge demand for biofuels and they have yet to realise benefits from economy of scale production processes so they remain a more expensive alternative.

IATA says that given that aircraft are expensive assets with long lives that it has to recognise that conventional jet fuel or a fuel resembling jet fuel will have to be in use for some time but ongoing research is making greater use possible.

The EU's Biofuels Flightpath project has set a target for carriers to use 2 million tonnes of biofuels per annum in Europe by 2020 which works out at 3-4% of total jet fuel consumption. IATA believes a 3-6% share for biofuel is achievable by 2020.

Since Virgin Atlantic flew the very first biofuel test flight, using a 20% blend of biofuels in one of its engines, between London and Amsterdam in February 2008, there have been a number of test flights. Some carriers have used biofuels on scheduled commercial flights. A few have entered regular schedules.

Commercial flights have been flown by a number of carriers including KLM which flew between Amsterdam and Paris in June 2011 and United which flew between Houston and Chicago in November 2011.

KLM is now operating a regular weekly flight between JFK and Kennedy on biofuels and China Eastern (link to news story) recently announced that it would be initiating regular flights on biofuels.

KLM has also started marketing its new biofuel flights to corporate customers. The company has launched a service that allows corporate accounts who use the airline to fly services using sustainable biofuel for a proportion of their flights which effectively cuts their own reported emissions.

However, Lufthansa ran a six-month trial between July and December 2012 between Hamburg and Frankfurt which it chose not to continue. The airline judged the trial to be a success but has refrained from incorporating such a flight into its schedules until it is "able to secure the volume of sustainable, certified raw materials required in order to maintain routine operations", in other words biofuels at an economic cost.

Some carriers, such as British Airways, are dealing with this barrier by creating their own fuel supply.

British Airways has entered into a partnership -" GreenSky London -" with sustainable energy company Solana to build a plant that will convert approximately 500,000 tonnes of waste which would otherwise go to a landfill into 50,000 tonnes of sustainable low carbon jet fuel and 50,000 tonnes of biofuels per annum. As part of the project, British Airways has pledged to purchase, at market competitive prices, the jet fuel produced by the plant for the next 10 years which equates to US$500 million at today's prices. The site is scheduled to become operational in 2015.

With the pressure on to cut emissions but also to use sustainable suppliers, the use of biofuels may not yet be economic but it makes good economic sense.

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