Business aviation and the rise of biofuels


Biofuels have attracted a lot of attention recently, with biofuel companies claiming that the new fuels have the capability to reduce aircraft carbon emissions by as much as 80%.

With aviation emissions growing at an alarming rate, the environment may be the biggest threat to business aviation’s growth.
Business aircraft and the rise of biofuels

Aviation is responsible for just under 3 per cent of the world’s man-made carbon emissions.

There is a reason why environmentalist have shut down airline headquarters, stopped private jets from flying into airports and gathered in their thousands to protest the aviation industry. It is not so much to do with the amount that the industry pollutes, but the frightening rate at which it is growing.

Although aviation accounts for less than 3 per cent of the world’s man-made carbon emission – with business aircraft responsible for 0.04 per cent – carbon dioxide emissions from the aviation industry are said to have grown by 42 per cent between 1990 and 2005. This trend is set to continue with emissions expected to grow 50-70 per cent by 2025 and 300 per cent by 2050.

Airlines – particularly fast-growing ones in emerging markets like India or China – are responsible for most of the rise. But business aviation leaders are still concerned. “The environment is the biggest threat to business aviation growth,” says one senior manager at an aircraft engine manufacturer. “I am not sure everyone realises this.”

The problem for the aviation industry is that there is currently no substitute for aircraft engines powered by oil. However, the solution could be to change the oil.

What is biofuel?

Sustainable fuels or biofuels – derived from renewable feedstocks such as algae, plant biomass and woodchips – have attracted a lot of attention recently. Biofuel companies say that the new fuels have the capability to reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 per cent. Although a degree of scepticism still exists – a 2011 paper published by the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee suggested that a switch to biofuels could actually accelerate global warming – biofuels have largely emerged as the preferred alternative within the aviation industry, with the National Business Aviation Associations (NBAA) stating that “biofuels are essential to reducing emissions.”

With the US military investing in the development of biofuels – having already paved the way for technologies such as GPS and cell phones – and helping to erode some of the political resistance, optimistic predictions suggest that biofuels for business jets could become available to buy at FBOs from 2014, using trucks to deliver the fuel to dedicated storage tanks, before eventually installing pipelines to transport the fuel in the future.

Achieving milestones

The biofuel cause was given something to celebrate in July 2011, when airlines were given approval to commercially operate aircraft using a 50/50 blend of conventional petroleum-based jet fuel and biofuel.

Honeywell was the one of the first companies to take advantage of this new possibility. “Prior to July 2011, we had a fuel which was technologically feasible, but which we were not able to sell,” says Jim Rekoske, vice president and general manager of renewable energy and chemicals at Honeywell UOP.

By using a blend of Honeywell Green Jet Fuel, derived from the camelina plant, Honeywell achieved the first ever transatlantic flight to be powered by a biofuel blend in June 2011, carrying a 20,000 kg Gulfstream G450 business jet from New York to Paris in a flight that apparently saved around 5.5 metric tons of net carbon dioxide and burned around 20 gallons less fuel.

More recently, the National Research Council of Canada achieved a major milestone for the industry, by flying the first civil jet (a Dassault Falcon 20 business jet) to be powered completely by unblended biofuel. Analysis of the information collected in flight has since revealed a 50 per cent reduction in aerosol emissions and 49 per cent decrease in black carbon emissions, whilst the engines burned 1.5 per cent less fuel when running on pure biofuel.

Realistic targets

Now that fuels are technically possible, a major question still hovers over who will be willing to take on the task of investing in biofuel availability over the next decade, and specifically who will provide the land and farm the crops needed for mass biofuel production.

There are currently between 15,000 and 18,000 business jets in the world, with more than 11,000 based in the US. It is estimated that the global fleet of business jets burn between 60 and 70 billion gallons of fuel every year. Exactly how much of this can be displaced by biofuel and how quickly it will happen is unclear.

“One million acres are what is required to produce a significant amount,” says Rekokse, which translates to an area roughly three-and-a-half times the size of Hong Kong. “By the end of 2013, we will have two-to-three thousand gallons of biofuel available each day in the West Coast marketplace,” Rekokse adds. “I don’t think that anybody in this business believes we can displace 65-70 billion gallons in the next few years, but after five years of continuous growth, somewhere between 5 per cent and 7 per cent of that figure would be a more realistic target.”

Clearing the financial hurdle

What is required in order to reach the kind of number that Honeywell are striving for will depend on issues such as a sufficient level of testing to fast track biofuels’ path to a certification decision, an increase in the availability of source material and crucially, the funding to make all of this happen.

The Carbon War Room is a non-profit organisation which is looking to find precisely this kind of finance. Launched by Richard Branson in late 2011, Carbon War Room is working towards a world where over $1 trillion is invested in climate change solutions on a yearly basis.

Part of Branson’s vision includes the Renewable Jet Fuels project and website in its own right. “The aim is to get private finance flowing into the cleaner solutions sector, so that it can scale and break down the barriers to lower carbon fuels,” says senior adviser Suzanne Hunt.

Visitors to the Renewable Jet Fuels website will find tables ranking the world’s leading renewable fuel producers in order and a database, which provides insight into detailed information that is specific to supply chain companies in the advanced biofuel industry.

“What we’re really looking for is the first catalytic deal that appeals to both buyers and investors,” says Hunt. “This would really be the first deal of its type. We have seen biofuel bought in limited amounts, but that has not let the industry take off. We are trying to create a market.”

Although the jury may still be out on biofuels and their role within the business aviation industry, there is a shared feeling of optimism, which suggests that with the right research, the daunting financial hurdle currently blocking the development of biofuels and their path to commercial viability could be cleared.

This is not to say that it will any time soon, however, with the NBAA admitting that much of their research is looking at beyond the next 50 years. “In an ideal world, I would like to be popping champagne corks in 6-8 months,” says Hunt, in reference to finding the necessary funding, “but the reality is that it could take a lot longer.”