Farm waste and animal fats will help power a jet airplane

United Airlines’s move means that the age of biofuels has, finally, arrived

United Airlines: will begin using fuel generated from farm waste and oils derived from animal fats. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

United Airlines: will begin using fuel generated from farm waste and oils derived from animal fats. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

 

Sometime this summer, a United Airlines flight will fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco using fuel generated from farm waste and oils derived from animal fats.

For passengers, little will be different – the engines will still roar, the seats in economy will still be cramped. For the airlines and the biofuels industry, however, the flight will represent a long-awaited milestone: the first time a domestic airline operates regular passenger flights using an alternative jet fuel.

For years, biofuels have been seen as an important part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And airlines, with their concentration around airports and use of the same kind of fuel, have been seen as a promising customer in a biofuels industry that has struggled to gain traction.

That relationship is finally showing signs of taking off.

United plans to announce a $30 million (€26.8 million) investment in one of the largest producers of aviation biofuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy. This is, to date, the biggest investment by a domestic airline in the small but growing field of alternative fuels. (Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, last year announced a smaller investment in Fulcrum.)

The quantities that United intends to buy from Fulcrum constitute a small drop in its voluminous fuel consumption. Last year, United’s fleet consumed 3.9 billion gallons of fuel, at a cost of $11.6 billion (€10.4 billion).

Still, airlines are increasingly under pressure to reduce carbon emissions. Last month the Obama administration proposed that new limits on aviation emissions be developed. And the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a United Nations agency, is expected to complete its own negotiations on limiting carbon pollution by February 2016.

“There is a significant role for biofuels within the aviation sector, specifically for reducing carbon emissions,” says Debbie Hammel, a senior resource specialist at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which focuses on biofuel.

Cost of fuel

California-based Fulcrum has developed and certified a technology that turns municipal waste (household trash) into sustainable aviation fuel, a kind that can be blended in directly with traditional jet fuels. It is now building a biofuel refinery in Nevada to open in 2017, and has plans for five more plants around the country.

Fulcrum said its technology can cut an airline’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared with traditional jet fuel. “There is definitely a huge interest from airlines in this market,” says Angela Foster-Rice, United’s managing director for environmental affairs and sustainability.

United’s deal with Fulcrum is one of many that airlines have made in recent years.

Alaska Airlines aims to use biofuels at least at one of its airports by 2020. Southwest Airlines announced last year that it would purchase about 3 million gallons a year of jet fuel made from wood residues from Red Rock Biofuels. The first blend of this new fuel product, however, won’t be available until 2016.

Last year, British Airways joined with Solena Fuels to build a biofuel refinery near London’s Heathrow Airport, which will be completed by 2017.

United’s deal is the airline’s second major push toward alternative fuels. In 2013, the airline agreed to buy 15 million gallons of biofuels over three years from a California-based producer called AltAir Fuels, which makes biofuels out of non-edible natural oils and agricultural waste.

Delivery on way

For the first two weeks, four to five flights a day will carry a fuel mixture that is 30 percent biofuel and 70 percent traditional jet fuel; after that, the fuel will be blended into the overall supply.

“The AltAir project serves as a catalyst intended to pave the way for the industry,” says Foster-Rice. By burning biofuel products such as farm waste that have already absorbed carbon during their lifetime, jet engines avoid introducing into the atmosphere new carbon from a fossil fuel that has been locked away, underground, for millions of years.

The airlines seem to have little choice. For example, airlines, unlike automakers, cannot turn to other options such as electrification, says Hammel. That is why it is important, she adds, that the fuels be sustainably produced.

But despite the airlines’ interest, there are still substantial hurdles to the large- scale development of biofuels. Not the least of them are reasonable cost and reliable supplies.

“It remains quite difficult to get biofuels for aviation that is cost-effective, and to make sure the fuels will be available,” Foster-Rice says. The airline conducted its first test flight in 2009, with biofuels from algae.

Then there is the issue of where the biofuels companies get their raw material.

E James Macias, Fulcrum’s chief executive, says that the company had secured 20-year agreements from municipal waste management companies, including Waste Management, to provide stable supplies for the company’s projects.

He says that Fulcrum could produce its biofuel for “a lot less than” $1 a gallon. (United bought its jet fuel for $2.11 a gallon, on average, in the first quarter, and said its deal with Fulcrum was competitive with the price of traditional jet fuel.)

“We are producing very large volumes at a very good price,” Macias says. Financial terms of the agreement were not released, and neither company disclosed the size of United’s equity stake in Fulcrum.

Behind the deals is pressure on airlines to reduce carbon pollution. Although they account for only about 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, airlines are one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon pollution around the world.

Separately from the Obama administration’s recent push, commercial airlines have already voluntarily committed to limit the growth of their carbon emissions to 2 per cent a year through 2020, then cap emission growth after that.

By 2050, the industry hopes to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to half of their 2005 levels, according to the International Air Transport Association. But getting there will not be easy.

“That is why it is important to actually invest, and be willing to take on some of the risk,” says Foster-Rice. “And encourage the companies to really focus on jet fuel at a cost-competitive price.”

– (© 2015 New York Times News Service)

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