A better question is when.
Fuel is by far the biggest cost center for airlines, mainly because aviation fuel is the most expensive fuel to refine and, well, airplanes guzzle a lot of it.
That’s why the drive to develop an alternative aviation biofuel is becoming increasingly urgent for aircraft and engine manufacturers.
But even with the attention of the two largest aircraft makers, Boeing and Airbus, aviation biofuel is not exactly on the near-event horizon: Think 2025 before biofuel accounts for even 25 percent of the fuel airlines use, says Christian Dumas, vice president of sustainable development and eco-efficiency for Airbus. “I hope we can go faster than that,” he added.
At least there’s been progress on two important fronts, says Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group. One is that the aviation industry has moved past any consideration of food-based alternative fuels. Instead it is concentrating on the development of second-generation biofuels using non-food biomass.
Steele also says that research over the past year has proven that biofuels are technically feasible for aviation without changes to airframes and engines.
Now the future of aviation biofuel hinges on questions about feedstock availability, especially its availability in sufficient quantities.
Bill Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing, says it is “reasonable to see aviation biofuel commercially available in the next 3-5 years.” But not in very large quantities. As for significant amounts, Glover says “It depends on how you define significant.” That area is still being worked on from a technical and economic standpoint. “It’s hard to forecast a certain amount at a certain date.”
The first priority is get the right feedstocks at the right quantities and availability, said Jennifer Holmgren, Honeywell UOP‘s general manager, renewable energy and chemicals business unit.
Coincidentally (or maybe not) Honeywell recently launched Envergent Technologies, a joint venture with Ensyn Corp. that plans to offer technology and equipment to convert second-generation biomass into pyrolysis oil for power generation, heating fuel and for conversion into transportation fuels.
Boeing and Airbus say they are not planning on making their own alternative fuels, but are working with ethanol and other biofuel producers to make planes ready for the new technologies in the coming decades.
Also, the two companies are not directly investing in feedstock development. Boeing is doing some “small development support to find out what’s possible in feedstock,” says Glover. “We’re in an exploratory mode.” Airbus is in the same mode.
That could be an excess of caution. If Boeing and Airbus were to put their huge cash reserves and the weight of their technological expertise behind second-generation biomass and the feedstock needed for aviation biofuel, the biofuel ETA might change.