Climatewire recently published the first in a two-part series covering the current state of aviation biofuels and, despite the political climate and uncertainty for renewables, the future looks bright. The aviation sector has been proactively employing the use of biofuels, as we have covered over the course of the last year; global delivery giant FedEx alone plans to use over 48 million gallons of biofuels derived from wood beginning this year.
The article discusses the backstory behind the aviation industry’s dedication to developing greener fuel solutions. In 2008, a group of airlines approached Boeing about developing a solution that would cut emissions from jet fuel (the transportation sector is second only to electricity generation as the biggest emitters of CO2). Boeing agreed to spearhead the effort and the result was the formation of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), which currently represents 27 airlines that consume one-third of the world's jet fuel.
SAFUG found an ideal partner in Finland-based Neste Corporation, a state-owned petroleum company founded in 1948. Neste was at the forefront of developing some of the first viable biofuels for the aviation sector when the group approached them.
In 2005, Neste focused on a process that made diesel fuel from fatty acids and oily agricultural residues, included palm oil. After being targeted and attacked by Greenpeace and other environmental groups, Neste modified its process and began to rely mainly on non-edible vegetable and animal wastes and residues to make what it calls a "hydrotreated vegetable oil," which closely resembles kerosene. To date, Neste’s biofuel has been successfully tested in 1,200 commercial flights as a drop-in fuel.
With the influence of the international aviation industry behind it, the only hurdle that aviation biofuels face at this point is official recognition from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International), which has set health, quality and safety standards for over 12,000 products. Boeing and other aircraft and jet engine manufacturers have formed an ASTM committee to decide whether the fuel from the Neste process can be used globally for making low-carbon jet fuel.
Moving Beyond Biofuels 1.0
The most exciting piece of the Climatewire article focuses on what may come next if the ASTM committee updates the standard (and the industry implements it). Should this happen, “the pool of renewable jet fuel will grow from a tiny 2 million gallons to a potential 2 billion gallons annually.” While that's not nearly enough to fuel the entire global airline industry, Darrin Morgan, Boeing's chief strategist for creating new aviation fuels notes that "it's really an important step because it gets us out of the experimental phase and gets industries into large quantities at cost-competitive prices."
Morgan believes that an increasing market will encourage more oil refiners and other companies to get into the business, and it will also mark the end of what he calls "Biofuels 1.0," a risky period for governments, innovators and investors who assumed low-carbon jet fuels were a venture that would promptly take flight. Unlike Neste, several companies that have tried to make biofuels have either failed or entered into bankruptcy, while others have made sudden shifts into other products.
One surviving company is Colorado-based Cool Planet Energy Systems, who developed a technology called pyrolysis that can heat farm wastes, wood chips and nutshells in the absence of oxygen to create fumes that are then passed through a catalyst to make a liquid biofuel. The unique process attracted investments from three major oil companies and won a $91 million grant from the Department of Agriculture, and the potential feedstocks to be used by the company to make renewable jet fuel are virtually limitless.
Wes Bolsen, head of business development for Cool Planet noted that "There are 42 million acres of beetle-killed trees in the northern Rockies. Those trees are going to fall down and rot and turn into methane, which is much worse than carbon dioxide." But by turning this forest waste into wood chips and ultimately biofuel, Cool Planet would be reducing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere while creating a sustainable biofuel.
Cool Planet has raised $30 million and is in the process of building a plant in Louisiana designed to produce a type of engineered biochar that is a waste product of their technology, which is popular as a soil amendment. Bolsen also explained that the company is working towards the end goal of producing a scalable biofuel, which must be developed in stages.
Now-defunct biofuels manufacturer KiOR—who is being sued by the state of Mississippi for $77 million on top of a recently-approved $4.5 million settlement for private shareholders—was simply not ready to scale its technology in the production of advanced biofuels. However, as Cool Planet continues to develop viable next-generation biofuels, the company is growing its profits with other biobased products along the way, which is a much more sustainable trajectory.