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Airlines Raring To Adopt Biofuels In Pursuit Of Carbon-neutral Growth

Airlines Raring To Adopt Biofuels In Pursuit Of Carbon-neutral Growth
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3/30/2012 11:25 AM ET

The airline industry is currently striving to meet the challenges faced due to the rising fuel costs and the efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Biofuels provide a viable alternative to conventional fuel and enable airlines to reduce their environmental impact.

However, the higher costs of biofuels and the raw material availability factor are the main challenges in transitioning to the use of biofuels by the airlines. IATA said recently that the biofuel transition will never happen if airlines wait until the price is right and commercial quantities are available.

Meanwhile, forecasts predict that aviation biofuels will become economical in about 20 years. The IEA estimates that biofuels will make up about 30 percent of aviation fuel supplies by 2050.

With the global air traffic expected to double in the next 15 years, airlines are striving to meet the demand without a proportional increase of carbon emissions. The aviation industry is targeting carbon neutral growth by 2020 and a 50 percent decrease in carbon emissions by 2050 based on 2005 levels.

The use of biofuels derived from sustainable oil crops such as jatropha, camelina and algae or from wood and waste biomass can reduce the overall carbon footprint by around 80 percent.

Currently aviation represents 2 percent of global emissions, but is expected to grow to 3 percent by 2050. Last year, aviation emitted 649 million tonnes of CO2 from a global total of 34 billion tonnes. Changing the fuel source is one of the few options the aviation industry has for reducing its carbon footprint.

Governments across the world are urged by the global airline industry to promote the use of biofuels, with new regulations and economic incentives for its production and use. The key is to use the incentives to not increase ticket prices when commercial airlines use biofuels.

"Biofuels represent one of the most promising means for the industry to reduce its carbon footprint. But it's not only about emissions. Biofuels offer opportunities to developing countries to grow new livelihoods and reduce dependency on imported fossil fuels, as well as the obvious benefits to the environment and the industry. These are compelling reasons for governments to get on board," says Paul Steele, IATA Aviation Environment Director.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have also stated they will team up with the airline industry to work on developing renewable jet fuel.

The use of plant-based biofuels on commercial flights received approval in July 2011 from a U.S.-based technical-standards group. ASTM International officially approved the use of renewable fuels that are up to 50 percent bio-derived synthetic fuel blended with conventional aviation fuel. Since then, several airlines in the U.S. have begun the use of biofuels on commercial flights.

The renewable fuel components are identical to hydrocarbons found in kerosone-based jet fuel, but come from oil-containing feedstocks such as algae, camelina and jatropha, or from animal fats called tallow. Most importantly, the biofuel is compatible with all aircraft engines with no modifications required.

Airbus (EADSY.PK) and Boeing (BA: Quote), which together manufacture about 80 percent of the world's passenger planes, are said to be planning to set up biofuel production chains across the world.

Last week, Boeing, Airbus and Embraer (ERJ: Quote) agreed to collaborate on aviation biofuel commercialization by the development of drop-in, affordable aviation biofuels.

"There are times to compete and there are times to cooperate. Two of the biggest threats to our industry are the price of oil and the impact of commercial air travel on our environment. By working with Airbus and Embraer on sustainable biofuels, we can accelerate their availability and reduce our industry's impacts on the planet we share," Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh noted.

In 2011 testing has been carried out in a number of different planes with various bio jet fuel blends, and several airlines and their partners are now investigating production of aviation biofuels on the commercial scale.

Continental airlines flew the nation's first passenger jet powered by biofuels in November 2011, flying a Boeing 737-800 running on algae-based biofuel. Alaska Airlines also a week later flew passengers using a fuel made in part from used cooking oil.

So, what does the future hold for the industry. Hydrogen has also been suggested as an aircraft fuel of the future. In reality, hydrogen aircraft would require new engines and airframes, which are unlikely to be seen for at least several decades.

Hence, at the present time novel liquid fuels are the only realistic alternative for commercial air transport. These include new fuels synthesized from gas (GTL) and coal (CTL) as well as those derived from biomass.

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by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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