Aviation Industry Sets its Sights on Biofuel as the Next Jetsetter

by Jennifer Chin

Most of us don’t think twice about air travel. We hop on flights that take us to the next state, across the country, and around the world because our jobs and vacation plans demand it. The FAA estimates that air passengers traveled 771,100,000,000 miles last year alone.

But all this air travel has an environmental price. Eco-conscious travelers have begun to notice, spurring organizations that allow you to purchase carbon offsets to compensate.

The Air Transit Association of America, taking action on these concerns, announced last year that they would work together to improve their carbon footprint 50% by 2050, compared to a baseline in 2005.

“As an industry, we’ve made commitments to reduce our emissions 1.5% each year from now until 2020,” says Bob Sturtz, Managing Director for Strategic Sourcing – Fuel, at United Airlines and a featured speaker at this week’s Net Impact Conference. After 2020, the industry hopes that all its growth will be carbon neutral.

Part of the aviation industry’s plan to cut their emissions is a new “Next Generation” GPS air traffic control system, which will allow planes to fly more direct routes between airports. Airlines are also investing in new aircraft engines that will be more fuel-efficient. Bob says those solutions could save about 12% in carbon emissions each.

But that’s not enough to reach their 50% target.

Along with partners in aviation, including the military and the FAA, Bob and United are concurrently pursuing solutions in alternative fuels. That’s what Bob and his fellow panelists will speak about in their Net Impact session, “Creating an Industry: Developing a Viable Market for Alternative Fuels.”

“We’re interested in fuels that meet four criteria: they are reliable, can be easily dropped into our current facilities, cost-competitive, and environmentally lower in carbon life cycle,” Bob says.

Cost-competitive is an important factor here. Alternative fuels, Bob points out, are as much a business imperative for airlines as an environmental benefit.

“30% of the airline industry’s costs are fuel, and currently, there’s a lot of volatility in the crude oil market,” says Bob. “Our economic viability as an industry is predicated on reducing our own fuel burn. So we have an incentive to bring low-carbon, cost-competitive fuels to the commercial scale, faster than they might otherwise develop on their own.”

Biofuel is one type that the aviation industry is helping push along, working with partners like Boeing and the Department of Agriculture. One of the furthest along projects, for instance, uses camelina, an oil seed, as a feedstock. It will be cultivated in Montana, crushed in Washington, and ultimately processed at a traditional refinery to produce 10% of Seattle-Tacoma Airport’s jet fuel.

“There is a considerable amount of development that needs to happen before it’s fully approved,” says Bob, who estimates it won’t be finished until 2012. But even now, they are convinced that biofuels and alternative fuels will work.

Continental Airlines, which recently merged with United, flew one of the first flights on experimental biofuel back in January of 2009. That flight was flown on a fuel mixture produced from algae and jatropha, proving that biofuel was a viable option. And in April of this year, United flew the first commercial flight on a newly-approved synthetic jet fuel produced in the US.

“As an industry, we’ are trying to provide opportunities for biofuel companies to prove their fuels in the marketplace,” Bob says. He continues, “Aviation is a ready-made market. One business challenge for producers is usually, ‘Who’s going to buy my product?’ But the airline industry has already raised its hand. We’re ready to get these bio products into the distribution stream.”

In the meantime, Bob urges travelers to keep their eyes out for ways to support the aviation industry’s carbon efforts. “A great deal of resources, time, and effort are being spent to make air travel environmentally cleaner and more efficient,” he says.

Net Impact encourages those of you traveling to the Net Impact Conference in Michigan this week to consider carbon offsets with our partner, TerraPass. If you’re coming from within driving distance, please think about carpooling or getting a rideshare.

Bob Sturtz is a speaker at this week’s Net Impact Conference, 2020: Vision for a Sustainable Decade, held at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business from Oct 28-30. Find out more about Bob’s session at www.netimpact.org/conference.

Net Impact 2010 will be hosted by the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Stay tuned for coverage!

3 responses

  1. The UK press reported today that the US Navy is also experimenting with camelina-based biofuels for its aircraft. Curious whether this is a private-sector inspired effort with military applications, a military inspired effort with civilian applications, or a bit of both. Does anyone know?

  2. In February 2010, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that the U.S. military was about to begin large-scale production oil from algal ponds into jet fuel. After extraction at a cost of $2 per gallon, the oil will be refined at less than $3 a gallon. A larger-scale refining operation, producing 50 million gallons a year, is expected to go into production in 2013, with the possibility of lower per gallon costs so that algae-based fuel would be competitive with fossil fuels. The projects, run by the companies SAIC and General Atomics, are expected to produce 1,000 gallons of oil per acre per year from algal ponds.[26].

  3. ExxonMobil and startup Synthetic Genomics announced one of the biggest deals yet: more than $600 million for a 5-6- year algae biofuels development program, including more than $300 million to be invested into the startup. Synthetic Genomics is already backed by high-profile venture capital as well as oil giant BP

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