Green jet fuel making headway, closer than thought

Those who read this blog know from past posts¬†that I support development of biofuels as one of many climate-change solutions, but strictly conditional on how it’s made and how it’s used. Cellulosic ethanol can play an important role when we move to plug-in hybrids that still require gasoline, though to a much smaller extent. And, of course, I’m a big fan of developing biofuels as a climate-friendly alternative to jet fuel.

Air New Zealand has been making some serious progress on that front with its partners Boeing, Rolls-Royce and UOP (Honeywell). A team led by Rolls-Royce is putting a jatropha-based jet fuel through rigorous tests to further validate what preliminary data has so far shown: that the fuel meets all required specifications for commercial aviation. Once testing is completed later this fall, and assuming all conditions are met, the new fuel will be tested on an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 sometime in December. The jetliner will be powered by four Rolls-Royce engines, one of which will run on the Jatropha-based jet fuel.

Jatropha plants grow about three metres high and produce seeds that contain an inedible oil. The oil can make up 40 per cent of a seed’s mass. The reason Jatropha is considered ideal for biofuel production is that it’s hardy, resistant to drought and pests, and can be grown on land that generally isn’t good enough for food crops. Seriously — this stuff can grow in sand, gravel, even rock crevices.

The partners in the Air New Zealand project have set high standards for the fuel they’re using in an effort to avoid the kind of criticism that has been aimed at corn-based ethanol. “Firstly, the fuel source must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food resources,” according to an airline press release. “Secondly, the fuel must be a drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel and technically be at least as good as the product used today.¬† Finally, it should be cost competitive with existing fuel supplies and be readily available.” Air New Zealand has said that 10 per cent of its jet fuel will come from jatropha-based biofuel by 2013.

Meanwhile, Wired’s Autotopia cites a Boeing executive saying that green jet fuel could start powering commercial jetliners as early as 2011 — much faster than most experts have suggested. Algae is also being developed as a feedstock for jet-fuel production, and companies such as Solazyme are leading in this area. But Boeing believes jatropha-based jet fuel will be the first to fly. Joe Romm, commenting on the Wired article at Climate Progress, said jet biofuel will need to be competitive with oil at $100 to $150 a barrel, “if we are going to start to see significant market penetration, I think, though a very serious carbon price would certainly help — assuming that such a carbon price was applied to the airline industry, which is far from certain anytime soon.”

Last year J.P. Morgan & Chase estimated that a barrel of jatropha-based jet fuel could be produced for $43. I think airlines around the world will be watching Air New Zealand closely in December when it makes that three-hour test flight.

7 thoughts on “Green jet fuel making headway, closer than thought”

  1. I really don’t understand why food crops and land that might be used for food crops is suddenly sacred. What about all the farmland that gets eaten up by sprawl? Is that causing worldwide food shortages and price increases?

    What about all the land that is currently used for growing tobacco? Is that causing starvation? What about all the grain, hops, and grapes that are used for alcoholic beverages? Surely cotton fields could be put to better use, we all wear artificial fibers now anyway, don’t we? Then there’s meat production, which uses hundreds of times more tonnage of food crops than is produced in return, for a huge net loss.

    Unless there are worldwide price controls placed on food, then it is supply and demand, both on the crops themselves, as well as the land. If food prices rise enough, then disused farmland will be put back into production, trust me. And if corn for tortillas is in high enough demand, then the ethanol distillers are going to be quickly looking for alternatives.

    I do think Jatropha is an excellent choice, as Tyler points out it will practically grow in a crack in a stone. All this angst about food crops for fuel seems misplaced, however. If someone figured out how to eat Jatropha, would it suddenly become evil to use it as fuel?

  2. Some simple facts, courtesy New Scientist Issue 2669:
    1. Annual aviation jet fuel consumption: 238 million tonnes
    2. Current Jatropha oil yields: 1.7 tonnes per hectare
    3. Jatropha planting required to replace fossil fuels for aviation: 1.4 million square kilometers (about 6X the total area of the UK).

    Maybe there is some degraded and poor farmland out there which could produce oil, but there isn’t 6 UK’s worth of it. If this catches on, quite a bit of that land is likely to be “reclaimed” by destroying a natural environment (see Brazilian soybean farms, Malaysian palm oil) in order to farm it, and that usually ends up being much worse for net carbon emissions than the fossil fuel it replaces.

  3. Derek, those facts do seem a bit bleak but there are more UKs out there than you think. There are large areas in the American mid-west that currently grow corn (maize) using irrigation which is depleting aquifers; perhaps they would be suitable for Jatropha production. There must be areas in Russia, China, India and South America that are marginal for food as well. My guess is they won’t be growing it in the Cotswolds, but in western Nebraska maybe it could be viable.

  4. We are currently vertically farming foods for consumption and algae for biofuels. Based in Vancouver. I would like to see our company listed on the site and some articles/information about vertical farming. In addition, Continental Airlines flew an 1 1/2 hr test flight yesterday successfully running on biofuels from algae. Come check us out if you are interested in alternative food and fuel sources.

    Caroline Keddy

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