The Evolution of Aviation: Biofuels

Earlier this week, Boeing released it’s 2009 Environmental Report which highlights 2008 reductions in energy and water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. On the more innovative side, the Boeing report describes biofuel demonstration flights held over the past year which document the technical feasibility of using biofuels in commercial jetliners. The demonstration flights represent a significant step toward a long-term vision of sustainable fuel solutions for the aviation industry.
In addition to biofuel advancements, a Boeing subsidiary, Spectrolab, achieved a new solar cell world record with 40.7% efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity. The 2009 Environmental Report provides a clear indication that the company is pioneering innovative technologies that will realize even greater efficiencies in the coming year.

A true industry leader, Boeing is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft combined. Boeing’s foray into sustainable fuels signals an emerging trend within the aviation industry that result in mainstream standards in a few short years.
Boeing worked a number of commercial airlines on the demonstration flights which required no modifications to the airplanes or engines.
* On Dec. 30th, 2008, Air New Zealand conducted the first sustainable biofuels flight using jatropha as a fuel source (flown with a 50/50 mix with traditional jet fuel).
* On Jan. 7th, 2009, Continental Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to conduct a biofuels test flight and also the first to use algae as a fuel source.
* On Jan. 30th, 2009, Japan Airlines became the first airline to use the energy crop camelina as a fuel source. The 90 minute flight relied upon a fuel mix of camelina, algae and jatropha mixed with conventional jet fuel.
Results from these test flights will be incorporated into Boeing’s strategy development as they work towards their target goal of a 15% improvement in fuel efficiency in each new-generation aircraft. Documentation of the demonstration flights is an encouraging signal that the possibility of non-fossil fuel flights is closer than most would imagine.
Additionally, the demonstration test flight results are intended to contribute to the effort to certify the algae-based fuels through the ASTM. The greater goal of this effort is to eventually alter the current jet fuel specification requirements which state that jet fuel must be derived from petroleum-based source material.
Driven by both environmental and economic incentives, the widespread use of biofuels in the aviation industry represents a significant savings for airlines. With increasing fuel costs, biofuels represent a fuel source that in a matter of years will be price competitive with today’s fossil fuel costs. According to a recent article in Fast Company, jet fuel is the airlines’ largest and most volatile expense, representing 25% – 40% of total operating costs. Estimates indicate that commercial quantities of algae oil can be produced in three years and that this supply can be produced domestically. Experts agree that assuming projected increases in fuel prices takes place, algae-based biofuels will be price competitive. If not, we’ll likely see a program of government subsidies to introduce the new biofuels into the marketplace.
Until now, the aviation industry has been slow to demonstrate initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of their products and services. In addition to reductions in fuel consumption, Boeing is now pioneering more sustainable technologies that address environmental noise pollution and reduced energy needs for their operations. In this regard, the aviation industry has begun to show greater progress on the environmental front than the shipping and cruise line industries, which contribute twice as much as the aviation industry does to climate change.
In addition to advancements in developing feasible biofuel sources, Boeing has also collaborated with leading airlines and environmental organizations to form the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. The goal of this group is to accelerate the development and commercialization of innovative sustainable aviation fuels. Outcomes from this group are expected to include reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry and to securie the industry’s exposure to volatile oil prices.

David received his undergraduate degree in Geographic Information Sciences from James Madison University and completed an M.A. in International Development at Clark University. With over 10 years of experience in the field of environmental sustainability, David has worked for organizations such as Environmental Defense Fund, USDA, USGS and the Smithsonian Institute.Currently, David is a NetImpact member and an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management where his research focus is on developing market incentives for investment in environmental sustainability.

One response

  1. In addition to biofuel advancements, a Boeing subsidiary, Spectrolab, achieved a new solar cell world record with 40.7% efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity.
    Thats great news. one day we will get solar (PVC) powered electric car

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