Aviation should be main focus of biofuels development

Perhaps this is a naive opinion — I’m open to that criticism. But if you believe, as I do, that the future of clean, efficient ground transportation is electrification, and that such a solution doesn’t exist for aviation, then you may support the idea that the bulk of research, development and commercialization around biofuels should be focused on replacing our use of jet fuel, not gasoline. It’s not that I don’t think there’s value in using biofuels for vehicles, particularly as the fuel component of a plug-in hybrid. It’s just that biofuels, in my view, represent the only realistic clean-fuel option for long-distance jet travel.

I cover this issue in my Clean Break column published today. About 50 per cent of a barrel of oil goes toward gasoline production, while only 10 per cent goes toward jet fuel production. It makes more sense to me to target that 10 per cent, which can’t be displaced with electrification, with biofuels. Solazyme, for example, has made significant progress with creating jet fuel from algae oil. New cellulosic approaches are also proving effective.

It just seems that pursuing every technology for every application simply spreads us too thin, dividing scare resources when we should instead be targeting them with precision. I know this flies against the whole free market approach to innovation, but at some point shouldn’t we get a little more focused?

9 thoughts on “Aviation should be main focus of biofuels development”

  1. The problem with focusing research is that it leads to stagnation. I realize that many people don’t understand this (or, based on their investments, corporations), but few discoveries are made by directly investing in a specific, highly focused area. We don’t yet have the knowledge required to make accurate predictions about exactly what path needs to be taken to create, say, a new form of glue with specific properties.

    So what is the alternative? Generic research in many fields. As an example, the current cooling technology that will be used by the ITER fusion reactor wasn’t invented for fusion, it was invented to be used at the LHC particle accelerator. That’s a current “green” example of general research being put toward an unexpected application, but it happens all the time, in all areas of research. Many of the partial cures for various types of cancer that we’ve developed came from physics research. Adaptive Optics, which has proved absolutely indispensable to Astronomers, was first developed as part of a military weapons system. The glue used on sticky tabs was a mistake, with no foreseeable applications. Cyclamate, a popular artificial sweetener, was an attempt to create a medication to help with fevers. Teflon was originally created as an (unsuccessful) refrigerant. And on… and on… and on…

    So no, I don’t think that focused research is the best way to go. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but generic, unfocused research, both in a specific field and in other, related fields (and sometimes unrelated fields) leads to faster discoveries and faster innovation.

  2. I see this as somewhat wrongheaded… Jet travel is overwhelmingly discretionary, both for freight and passengers. There are almost always reasonable alternatives to using jets: vacation closer to home, video conference or send just one or two people to that business meeting, send the package in 3 days rather than overnight, don’t sell low-priced kiwis in the winter, etc. This is one transport sector which should be able to ratchet back down to 1960’s volumes for mandatory/occasional travel without affecting our day to day lives hardly at all. At that level it will still be polluting, but such a tiny contributor that it can be accommodated. George Monbiot came to this conclusion in his book HEAT, and I tend to agree. Thomas Homer Dixon also indicated as such in The Upside of Down; we need to reduce overall energy needs as a society, not just try to replace it with another source.

    We are not in any danger of running out of jet fuel. Jet A & B are almost perfect fuels for aviation in terms of energy density, temperature tolerance, and are reasonably safe. This came about through many decades of military funded research plus a trial and error evolution. Why throw lots of money to developing alternatives which could endanger many lives if they don’t perform as expected, when we can easily just reduce demand through appropriate taxes? (easily meaning low societal impact, there would certainly be huge popular and industry outcry) I travel quite a bit for business (Air Canada Elite status quite a few years running), but if prices were a lot higher then clients would not have the expectation of regular face to face meetings, and I would not miss the travel hassle.

    That being said, the pessimist (realist?) in me doesn’t really believe that air travel will be appropriately carbon taxed in the next 10-20 years though. Aerospace is such a fiercely protected/subsidized industry in US/Europe/Canada/Almost Everywhere Else, that we are not even to the point of admitting air travel exists when discussing climate plans thus far, it is just quietly ignored.

  3. I agree that aircraft will have a much harder time finding substitute fuels than ground vehicles will.

    That being said, the same fundamental problems with biofuels exist, regardless of the vehicles using them. The low energy return on investment, in particular, probably means that low-carbon air travel cannot be anywhere near as cheap as the kerosene-fuelled variety.

  4. Tyler and Gopher65 both have good points. Electrification of ground transport is almost inevitable at this point. Electrification of air transport would be very difficult. Research breakthroughs are hard to predict (just thinking of the Firefly battery carbon foam). I believe it is the implementation phase that needs to be focused. What that means is that, rather than concentrate our research, make sure that we don’t discourage use of bio fuels in airplanes with too many incentives to use bio fuels in cars that artificially drive up the cost of the bio fuels.

  5. I’m largely of the same opinion. One solution is to make bio-crude and refine it into aviation fuel.

    Further out, hydrogen powered turbines might be worthwhile.


  6. gopher65 said it well. Research needs to be diverse and outlandish. Our research dollars should concentrate on the core sciences, ‘What makes our world tick’ type of questions and any question is valid and should not be rejected.

    Electrifying on-road transportation will make lots of crude available for air transportation and probably reduce the cost of flying, therefore increasing air traffic and air pollution. I would be very happy (environmentally speaking) if air transportation traffic was capped to today’s levels and all on-road transportation was electric.

    Ah… trade-offs.

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