Striving for a greener alternative
One early afternoon toward the end of June 2011, KLM launched a Boeing 737-800 flight from Amsterdam to Paris carrying 171 passengers, fueled by a blend of cooking oil and jet fuel. It was the start of what the carrier hopes will be 200 such flights. Most important, though, it was a huge leap toward efficient, environmentally friendly aviation for KLM.
While the KLM flight wasn’t the first to use a blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel in airplane engines, the passenger service is indicative of a recent, growing trend in aviation. In January, Lufthansa concluded its own six-month biofuel trials, which had seen Airbus A321 flights from Frankfurt powered by a biofuel blend. Qantas brought Australia into the fray with the country’s first flight using fuel made from cooking oil on April 13. More recently, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have put aside their rivalries to proceed on a unified front in developing and testing alternative sources of jet fuel.
These trials and explorations signal a growing awareness of environmental sustainability in the aviation field that has been growing for the past five years. And while the tests have all been conducted on passenger flights, they nevertheless point the path forward for a greener air cargo landscape. Though acceptance of biofuels is no longer an issue and new alternative fuel sources are being approved every year, barriers to entry still remain. Regardless, the airline industry has built a critical mass and is slowly moving toward global implementation of alternative fuel sources.
Qantas, Lufthansa and other carriers have launched test flights to gain experience with biofuel and to prove that it’s a viable alternative — biofuel blends do, in fact, work just like kerosene. These airlines also get a bit of positive public relations out of the launches. The problem with these events, however, is that the tests aren’t done using a market-based pricing scheme. The cost of these small flight batches would be prohibitive if they were conducted on a larger scale. Currently, the cost of producing biofuels is the main barrier to entry into the alternative fuel world; while the demand might be there at a lower cost, the supply hasn’t caught up.
According to Boeing’s Terrance Scott, 85 percent of the cost of production is tied to feedstock — growing it, cultivating it and bringing it to market. Once producers figure out how to decrease their costs, biofuels will become more affordable, Scott explains. More research into Jatropha, Camelina and other viable biofuel sources is needed to figure out how to increase the production yield and grow these plants more economically. Until then, test flights are simply an exercise in what could be.
“We’ve now moved beyond the technical feasibility questions. We know it works; we know there are no engine issues; we know the performance values. The issue now is not technical, it’s quantity. There’s a demonstrated industry demand for these fuels, but there’s not enough to go around,” Scott says. “The challenge is, how do you increase capacity and reduce the price.”
Boeing, Scott says, moved into the alternative fuels field because of its customers, who were under pressure from a variety of sources. Astronomical fuel prices are, of course, a primary motivating factor for airlines. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as carbon goals set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association, are also important factors.
The manufacturer’s ultimate goal — and one Scott thinks can be achieved with the help of Airbus and Embraer — is to have 1 percent of all aviation jetfuel from bio-derived sources by 2015. Scott says that’s around 600 million gallons of fuel made from alcohol, algae, cooking oil or whatever else is in the approval pipeline. By working together among its partners, he says, the companies have a much louder voice and will be able to push biofuels into the market.