12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
As the third runway at Heathrow takes a step closer to reality and environmentalists step up their opposition to the airport expansion, Stanley Wootliff looks at the use of sustainable fuels for future aircraft
Why, you might ask, am I so optimistic? For starters, the International Air Transport Association, the trade body for most of the world's airlines, has a goal of replacing at least 25% of the airlines' annual fossil fuel based consumption of 85bn gallons with fossil fuel based alternatives, biofuels, by 2025. This goal rises steeply to 33% by 2030. Among these non fossil fuel biofuel alternatives is jatropha, a nut containing high energy density oil that is indigenous to Brazil.
Jatropha is a perennial non-food crop exclusively grown for its energy content as it is poisonous to animals and humans. It is indigenous to Brazil and given that there are large swathes of idle land available in Brazil, this is an ideal place to grow jatropha. There is also a real need for a ‘truly sustainable' crop, one that can help reduce Green House Gas throughout its lifecycle but also does not compete with food production. As a perennial, the jatropha tree also causes reforestation and presents less soil disturbance and erosion while improving land hydration and N2O fixing. Having established what jatropha is, the question now is what can it do for the airline industry?
The recent Air New Zealand test flight on December 30, 2008 is probably the best example of jatropha powered flying. One of the plane's four engines used a 50/50 blend of jatropha based kerosene and standard jet fuel. These tests were to determine several factors including the performance, lubricity and corrosive nature of this biofuel and though the results are yet to be released, the initial response has been positive. The pilot for Continental Airlines, which tested a jatropha and algae mix recently, has said that he felt that the test engine seemed to have burned less fuel compared to the traditional jet engine. This is probably due to the fact that the energy density for jatropha is 4% higher than petroleum, meaning it has 4% more range.
Two unique properties of jatropha jet fuel are its low freezing point and a molecular configuration that is very close to that for jet fuel kerosene. This makes it more suitable for use as a jet fuel than many of the other biofuel feedstock. But the real upside is that the engines require no modifications whatsoever to burn this fuel and that is probably one of the biggest reasons why there is so much interest. Jatropha will still have to be blended with conventional jet fuel but if the tests are successful, biofuels can be easily incorporated into the current airline infrastructure.
By far the biggest factor that will push for the adoption of biofuel for this industry is legislation. EU ministers approved on October 24, 2008 a deal to include aviation activities in the bloc's emission trading scheme, also known as the EU ETS. This would mean that there will be a cap on CO2 emissions for all planes arriving or departing from EU airports. But airlines will be able to buy and sell ‘pollution credits' from the EU carbon markets. The scheme comes into affect in 2012 and as the aviation industry contributes up to 9% of all greenhouse emissions in Europe, biofuel should be in the industry spotlight. This also goes hand in hand with the EU Renewable Energy Directive which states that 10% of transport within the EU should use energy from renewable sources by 2020. There is current pressure to remove the airline industry from these renewable energy targets on the grounds that biofuels will not be ready for commercial aviation fuel until after 2020 but until this legislation is ratified, the industry should brace itself for winds of change.
The push for a reduction in greenhouse gases has never been stronger and this will be the likely catalyst for the adoption of biofuel within the industry. The industry really needs to take a lead in this field and though the current economic environment is making this matter particularly challenging, who's not to say that even in the good times, there will still be resistance to change. The industry needs to take a long hard look at the options and so far, the biofuel route is the least rocky path to go.
Stanley Wootliff is the chairman and ceo of Viridas plc, a Jatropha Oil agronomy business in Brazil.