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Flying High With Aviation Biofuels

This Business of Farming

Farm-to-Fly initiative could boost biofuel industry

Published on: February 22, 2013

It's not often you can connect rural America with a world full of jetliners, but that's exactly what's happening with a two-year-old public-private initiative called "Farm to Fly."

Airlines for America, the industry trade association for several U.S. airlines, along with USDA and industry giant Boeing, say the Farm to Fly program will accelerate the availability of a commercially viable and sustainable aviation biofuel industry in the United States. The initiative would increase domestic energy security, establish regional supply chains for aviation biofuel, and support rural development.

When pigs fly, right? Actually, there's a lot of support for the idea – and most is coming from the airline industry.

John Tracy, Chief Technology Officer and senior VP of engineering for Boeing, says a robust aviation biofuels market will have other benefits, including potential new crop demand and rural infrastructure, depending on the feedstock that is used for aviation biofuel.

And since 75% of the world's fleet comes from Boeing factories, Tracy seems to be the right guy to be out there cheerleading this concept.

"Aviation is begging for biofuels to come into the market at an affordable, high quality level," he says. "There's a market just waiting for you to scale this up."

Commercial flight is a growth industry. Right now there are 20,000 planes worldwide, including large, twin-aisle, single-aisle and regional jets; by 2031 that figure will double, says Tracy. "We've done these predictions before and they are right," he says. "The growth of world passenger and freight levels correlates nicely with world GDP growth."

Of course, some Black Swan events, such as 9/11 or SARS, do short-term damage to passenger traffic. But in general, air traffic grows 5% each year.

Better planes

The planes are getting better, too. New machines are much more environmentally compliant. "Since the beginning of the jet age we've reduced CO2 emissions 70%," says Tracy.

Even so, doubling the fleet in the next 20 years is worrisome, especially when you think about ozone depletion. "We're very sensitive about the amount of CO2 that commercial operations put into the environment," Tracy says. "That's the reason we like biofuels so much."

The commercial air industry could cut emissions by 60% if the entire fleet is converted to biofuel. Boeing's plan is to make new planes 15% more efficient than those they replace, and that includes lower lifecycle CO2 with sustainable biofuels. Boeing's ambitious timeline is to develop "carbon neutral" machines that use biofuels, and less fuel over all, by 2050.

"Sustainable biofuels are an essential enabler for reducing emissions," he says.

The air travel industry also worries about costs, which make up 27% of operating expenses. From 2000 to 2012 aviation fuel costs jumped 12% a year.

Challenges

The "Farm to Fly" initiative has a few caveats. The biofuels must be able to simply replace current aviation fuel – no modifications to jet engines. They must be sustainable – they can't be using land and water that would displace food or people. And they have to have a carbon neutral footprint.

"The airlines are very clear about sustainability," Tracy says. "No deforestation, no negative food impacts, and minimal impact to biodiversity."

That makes the choice of feedstock for this fuel very tricky. The industry is looking closely at algae as a feedstock because it doesn't compete with land, but it still has its issues. Cellulosic has great potential but there's difficulty in converting it to fuel. "Sugar is great but you worry about competing with food crops," he says. "Non-food oilseeds are an approved source for aviation biofuels but they have poor yields.

"With all of these feedstocks we have to worry about energy yield per acre," he says. "We don't want to impact the food supply and we need to make sure that we realize producing biomass is only part of the equation. Getting the feedstock, whatever the fuel is, is the bulk of the cost; the rest is processing."

Demand is there

If the biofuels industry can work out the kinks, the industry is ready to buy. There's a broad demand for aviation biofuel. Several airlines, along with the Department of Defense, began test flights in 2008.

"We believe it's possible to have one percent of aviation fuel be biofuel by 2015," Tracy says. "That's 600 million gallons a year.

"The flying public is willing to pay more to reduce their carbon impact," he concludes. "If you build it, we will buy it."