Capacity for aviation biofuel is now at a stage where it is down to operators to start saying they are willing to buy and use it, according to a panel of experts gathered at the Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuel (SAFJ) conference hosted by TAG Farnborough Airport on Saturday.
By their very design, the “drop-in” biofuels now available from various suppliers such as Air BP, World Fuel, and Avfuel at a small but growing number of locations can use existing distribution infrastructure and have no effect on current engines. However, panelists also lamented that operators are proving reluctant to adopt biofuel blends, despite offsetting incentives offered within carbon offsetting schemes such as EU-ETS and the upcoming CORSIA international scheme.
Many operators still believe, erroneously, that the fuels might not be good for their engines. “One of the biggest problems we have is convincing the industry it is a drop-in fuel and it is not going to gum up your engine,” said Brad Nolen, vice president marketing and product strategy at Bombardier Aviation (Booth Z125).
At present, as long as biofuels are used as less than 50 percent of the fuel used, in a blend with jet-A, the engines experience no difference from a technical standpoint. It has been shown that the “aromatic" components in jet-A are more than sufficient to allow the fuels to work with all the engine components, while not affecting the lives of seals and other parts. Although biofuel is currently around three times the price of jet-A—and falling gradually—it has been shown to actually improve engine efficiency. And SAJF currently uses up to 50 percent less energy input and overall lifecycle emissions compared to fossil fuels. Up to 82 percent is possible with some SAJF feedstocks and manufacturing processes.
Tim Obitts, chief operating officer at the National Air Transport Association (NATA), noted that a similar SAFJ event in Van Nuys, California, in January was “very well covered by the media” and suggested this was a key part of getting the word out and improving understanding.
Kurt Edwards, director general of the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC, Booth H55), recounted the launch of "The Business Aviation Guide to the Use of Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuel" launched at EBACE last year. He noted the large amount of detail in this guide and urged operators to read it carefully.
According to Edwards, the business aviation sector committed to sustainable jet fuels and other environmental initiatives 10 years ago with the “Business Aviation Commitment to Climate Change (BACCC)” initiative. Released in November 2009, this set out three goals and four pathways to reach the aim of a 50 percent reduction in the industry’s CO2 emissions by 2050 over 2005 levels. The pathways are market-based measures, such as ETS/emission trading system; technology; operations and infrastructure; and alternative fuels.
He noted that SAJF can be a “key contributor, and is probably going to make the biggest impact—and it’s available now.” The sector always knew that to start using it sooner it would need drop-in fuel, which meant it would have to be viable for current aircraft, match the performance of jet-A, and work with the currently available infrastructure. This has been achieved using various production pathways, and now ASTM-spec jet-A-equivalent biofuel is available.
Airlines have in fact used biofuel blends on some 180,000 flights since 2011 and a few airports now have the fuel available, including Los Angeles International, Bergen in Norway, Arlanda in Sweden, and Brisbane in Australia. Gulfstream has been using SAJF to power its flight test and demonstration airplanes at its Savannah, Georgia headquarters for many years, and it now offers customers SAJF at its Long Beach, California facility. On May 20, Gulfstream sold its first load of SAJF to a customer after a completion job at Long Beach. Edwards added that “there are five approved pathways already to produce this fuel,” and nine airlines have signed for 1.6 billion gallons of SAJF under forward-purchase contracts.
Although business aviation represents a far smaller contribution to global emissions and only 2 percent of overall aviation fuel burn, panelists were unanimous that the sector has the best chance of playing an early adopter role for two reasons: clients are less sensitive to price than airline passengers and there is often an element of corporate social responsibility where those chartering or owning aircraft have larger, top-level goals to improve environmental performance.
To this end, the panel suggested more efforts to encourage companies to make this link, driving their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals into their flight purchasing decisions and operations.
Panelist Jurgen Wiese, EBAA chairman and head of BMW’s flight operations department, said larger operators were “willing to take the lead,” and this will “hopefully bring the price down.” Charles Etter, staff scientist and technical fellow for environmental and regulatory affairs at Gulfstream Aerospace (Booth T139), said, “We need the pull from customers and FBOs saying they will have long-term agreements.”
Another concern among panelists was that the blending takes place too late in the supply chain to be practical as quantities and levels of use increase. Guy Sawyer, senior director aviation for World Fuel Services, said “We need the blended product earlier…for Farnborough today we have blended the product off-site and that creates delay. We blended to just under 17 percent [for several aircraft that were due later to depart for Geneva ahead of EBACE]. Although jet-A and SAJF have about the same density, we have to test it. Looking forward, the supply chain won’t be economically sustainable if we don’t receive the fuel into the supply chain already blended.”
Keith Sawyer, manager of alternative fuels at Avfuel (Booth E89), said that, although SAJF presented complex problems, there are many projects that are gaining momentum in the airline world. For example, he cited one led by Shell and British Airways, another by Virgin Atlantic, and another with Neste in Singapore planning to supply the U.S. West Coast. Avfuel supplied 8,000 gallons of SAJF, which it blended using biofuel supplied by Gevo, for business jets departing from Republic Airport near New York City on their way to the Farnborough event and the EBACE show.
Meanwhile, Marcelo Gonçalves, a chemical engineer and Embraer product development engineer, said there were many projects related to SAJF feedstocks and this would lead to more pathways being approved in the future. He is a member of the ASTM Aviation Fuels Subcommittee and also Embraer's representative in partnership with Boeing at the Joint Research Center for Sustainable Aviation Biofuels in Brazil. “We can play an important role in finding new feedstocks and supporting certification,” he suggested. Currently there are five primary feedstocks approved for SAJF production and another five under development. Key to sustainability, he explained, is using feedstocks that are scaleable and don't affect the production of food. One plant that looks promising is carinata, which grows well in winter rotation with soybeans. Research is also underway to use waste products from sugar cane manufacturing and operating refineries at sugar cane facilities. "By 2020, we'll have 10 processes approved, and we'll have more competitive prices," he said.
Tom Parsons, biojet commercial development manager with Air BP (Booth C21), reiterated that “the next step is to send that demand signal. I’m expecting the market to double next year and maybe it will grow faster after that. The capacity is there, so let’s demand the fuel!”
After Saturday's technical session, several journalists departed Farnborough for Geneva on a Bombardier Global 6000 powered by a SAJF blend, with aircraft from other OEMs similarly following over the next 24 hours. The SAJF at Farnborough was produced by Gevo using the alcohol-to-jet process from nonfood corn and was shipped across the Atlantic by World Fuel Services to the UK, where it was blended at 17 percent biofuel with conventional jet-A to create 75,000 liters of SAJF and trucked to Farnborough. Some of the Europe-based aircraft flying to Geneva fueled up at Caen-Carpiquet Airport in France, and Sweden’s Stockholm Arlanda also received truckloads of SAJF, produced by Neste from used cooking oil and furnished by Air BP.