Jeff Gazzard of the Aviation Environment Federation raises serious questions about the safety and viability of aviation biofuels touted by the likes of Virgin Atlantic and, just this week, Continental. He says the push to develop them is at least in part corporate greenwashing by an industry desperate to appease its critics.
"For us, the jury is still well and truly out as to whether either synthetic or biofuels are yet capable of being either entirely fail-safe for aviation use or environmentally sustainable in the longer term," Gazzard writes in his report, Bio-Fueled or Bio-Fooled (.pdf).
The critical examination of aviation biofuel development comes as a growing number of airlines and aircraft manufacturers join energy firms in the hunt for alternatives to kerosene. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 93 percent of the world’s carriers, has set a goal of drawing 10 percent of its fuel from renewable sources by 2017.
But Gazzard says a lack of comprehensive safety standards poses a serious threat as increasing amounts of biofuel and other alternatives flow through an infrastructure designed for petroleum. He points to a British airport where conventional aviation fuel was contaminated by biofuel that had moved through the same pipeline. That’s problematic because unlike petroleum, untreated biofuels can freeze at low temperatures and damage seals in aircraft fuel systems.
The IATA says the example cited in Gazzard’s report isn’t relevant. "The AEF article quotes widely from Petroleum Review and faithfully recycles the view of big oil on the biofuels subject," IATA spokesman Steve Lott told Wired.com. "Their examples of contamination in the jet fuel supply are of first-generation biodiesels. Aviation is not even looking at these types of fuels."
Instead, Lott says, the IATA and its members are concentrating on second generation biofuels that are almost chemically identical to conventional jet fuel (Jet-A1), and therefore can be "dropped in" to existing fuel supplies, eliminating contamination concerns.
"The concept of biofuels in aviation has moved on very rapidly from even two years ago," Lott says. "Test results so far are very encouraging."
Encouraging or not, Gazzard is underwhelmed by the high-profile alt-fuel tests we’ve seen to far. Like others, he dismisses as a publicity stunt Virgin’s much-ballyhooed test flight of a Boeing 747 that flew from London to Amsterdam with one of its four fuel tanks carrying a 20 percent mix of biofuel. The plane, which used a mixture of coconut and babassu oils, would have needed some 3 million coconuts had it made the flight entirely on biofuel, he says.
That’s not stopping the industry from squeezing as much good PR out of its biofuel activities as possible. On Wednesday, Continental made a two-hour test flight of a Boeing 737 fueled by a 50-50 mix of jet fuel and a biofuel blended from algae and jatropha. It was the first test by an American carrier, and it came one week after Air New Zealand made a test flight with a plane fueled partly by a jatropha-based fuel. Later this month, Japan Airlines plans a test flight using fuel refined from camelina, a flowering plant grown in the high plains.
"This demonstration flight represents another step in Continental’s ongoing commitment to fuel efficiency and environmental responsibility," Larry Kellner, the airline’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "The technical knowledge we gain today will contribute to a wider understanding of the future for transportation fuels."
Boeing says aviation biofuel could be fueling commercial flights within three years. "We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how smoothly these tests are going," Billy Glover, Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy, says, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Gazzard argues the aviation industry and governments are more interested in appeasing critics than finding alternatives to oil.
"Much of this (activity) we feel is political positioning by industry and friendly governments to manufacture consent to keep expanding aviation in the face of growing demands for environmental limits," he writes in the report, "particularly in respect of the worrying increase in aviation’s greenhouse gas and wholly negative climate change impacts."
The report also poses a question others have raised with regard to using biofuels in the transportation sector: Is there enough plant material to meet demand? Although the aviation industry is betting heavily on algal fuels and non-food crops like jatropha, thereby largely avoiding the food-for-fuel debate associated with ethanol and other biofuels, its an open question whether it’s possible to produce enough of it. The aviation industry currently burns about 240 million tons of kerosene a year, a figure that will only rise as countries like India and
China ramp up their aviation operations. China alone is expected to buy 2,230 new planes between now and 2025.
Petroleum Week estimates that producing that much fuel from jatropha, one of the more promising bio-fuel prospects, would require planting 1.4 million square kilometers of it, an area twice the size of
France. And that’s bad news for governments who see alternative fuels as a way to tell Middle Eastern oil barons to shove off. Because as oil supplies dwindle, you can bet your bottom petrol-dollar that the Saudi Arabias of the world ill invest heavily in helophytes and other alt-fuel plants that thrive in the deserts of the Middle East and Africa. Gazzard’s report says that raises the possibility of an OPEC-style biofuel cartel.
He also wonders which of the bio-fuel partnerships announced when oil was going for $150 a barrel will remain now that prices are below $50 a barrel. With the world locked in a global recession, it’s going to be cheaper for airlines to burn jet fuel than invest in alternatives.