Airlines Start Flying on Mixed Fuels
Date: Saturday, November 12, 2011 @ 10:38:30 MST
Topic: Chicago Flights™ Tribune

In the past week, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines both debuted limited commercial flights using biofuels.

Although these airlines were the first in the U.S. to use the new fuel, several European airlines, including KLM Royal Dutch Airline and Lufthanza have beaten Continental and Alaska to the greener skies. On June 29, KLM claimed to be the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight on biofuels. Mexico’s Interjet has the honor of first biofueled commercial flight in Latin America, operating an Airbus A320/200 from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of the southern state of Chiapas, where the plant, Jatropha curcas that served as raw material for the fuel was harvested. And in the U.S., United took to the skies two days before Alaska soared aloft.

In July, the international certifying body ASTM International, a standards group based in Pennsylvania, formerly known as the American Society for Testing & Materials, approved the commercial use of renewable jet fuels derived from natural plant oils and animal fat, giving the go ahead for hydrotreated renewable jet fuels, or H.R.J. fuels, to be mixed with conventional jet fuel, up to 50 percent.

No, you won’t smell French fries when the engines light, it will still be the sweet smell of Jet A-1 fuel powering the planes. The airlines are split between the types of biofuel they choose to use. Used cooking oil, plant-based oils and algae-derived fuels are mixed in a variety of proportions with traditional jet fuel, although the majority is opting for plant-based oil derivatives. There are two primary plants being used – camelina sativa, sometimes called Gold of Pleasure and jatropha curcas. Both plants grow in marginal agricultural areas and require very little water to thrive.

United Airlines is using an algae-based fuel produced by Solazyme. In a statement issued by Solazyme, the inaugural flight was “the world’s first commercial aviation flight on a microbially-derived biofuel using Solajet™, Solazyme’s algae-derived renewable jet fuel. The Eco-skies Boeing 737-800 plane was fueled with 40 percent Solajet and 60 percent petroleum-derived jet fuel.”

Carbon Emissions

Photo Courtesy Lufthansa Bildarchiv FRA CI/I

The airline industry as a whole has pledged to stop increasing carbon emissions by 2020, and to halve them from the 2005 levels by 2050.

Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) state that total emissions for the airline industry stood at 649 million tons of CO2 in 2010, up 3.5 percent from the previous year.

According to a report in the New York Times, Joachim Buse, vice president for aviation biofuel at Lufthansa stated that during the airline’s preliminary testing, bio-synthetic kerosene could slightly reduce fuel consumption. “Due to the higher energy content of H.R.J., we have effectively a 1 percent reduction in fuel burn of the right engine. The expectation is that if we were to use a full blend the overall reduction in fuel burn would be 2 percent.” The airline is already reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by one ton per flight.

Less fuel burned equals less carbon emissions.

Camelina sativa requires very few nutrients to grow. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

But using alternative fuels doesn’t necessarily reduce the carbon footprint. In a recent interview with NPR, Alaska Air Director of Government Relations Megan Lawrence says the biofuel the airline will be using will provide a 10 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared with conventional jet fuel. As she noted in the broadcast, “This next step in Alaska Air’s evolution isn’t exactly the gold standard of green. This particular batch is sourced from used cooking oil that’s not even local: It comes from deep fryers in Texas and is processed in New Orleans.”

And therein lies the biggest dilemma for biofuel: sourcing an adequate supply of raw goods. You can only fry so many French fries, and plants take time to grow and mature. According to Bill Glover, Boeing’s strategist for environmental policy, the key is to establishing a new supply chain for biofuels. He said, “It’s going to take a little while to get the infrastructure in place, get the volume and get some of the economics a little more favorable. But our … near-term target is 1 percent of all the aviation fuel have some bio-content by 2015.”

Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer said, “This is a historic week for U.S. aviation.” He continued that he believes that sustainable biofuels are key to aviation’s future. “Commercial airplanes are equipped and ready for biofuels. They will enable us to fly cleaner, foster job growth in a new industry, and can insulate airlines from the volatile price swings of conventional fuel to help make air travel more economical. What we need is an adequate, affordable and sustainable supply. To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it.”

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