Can Aviation Biofuels Justify the Hype?

by Matthew Van Dusen, Txchnologist

Two weeks ago, a Gulfstream G-450 loaded with journalists and executives from Honeywell’s energy division, UOP, departed from Morristown, N.J. and touched down at Le Bourget Airport after an “utterly unremarkable” flight.

The purpose of the flight, which retraced Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 pond crossing, was to prove for the Paris Air Show the viability of the fuel that held them aloft: 50-50 blend of jet fuel and a biofuel derived from camelina, a seed plant. The blend saved 5.5 metric tons of carbon emissions for the flight compared to straight jet fuel, according to the company. (A 747 crossed the Atlantic several days later on a similar biofuel blend.)

Jim Rekoske, vice president and general manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals for UOP, said that recent events had brought biofuels “one step closer to commercial use that will help the aviation community reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on crude.”

image via Thunderbirds

Not everyone was impressed.

“It would have been a technical shocker only if the fuel didn’t work,” said James Bartis, a biofuels expert at the Rand Corp.

Aviation biofuels derived from camelina, jatropha, algae and other sources have been hyped, and funded, for years as petroleum alternatives that are just years away from widespread adoption. This view was affirmed in June when the oil-product standards body ASTM International granted preliminary approval for commercial airlines to use aviation biofuels (also known as BIO SPK).

The approval comes as airlines are facing pressure, particularly in Europe, to reduce their emissions, which account for 2 percent of global carbon emissions.

Despite the obvious appeal of biofuels for energy security and environmental sustainability, analysts, researchers and even some within the industry remain skeptical that large numbers of passengers will be kept aloft by pond scum and scrub plants anytime soon.

Scalability an issue

The issue isn’t whether biofuels can power jets – that’s largely been proven.

The question is whether biofuels can be produced at a large enough scale to offset petroleum use – some 19 million barrels per day, according to RAND.

Yields from camelina, jatropha and other seed oils are so low that they could only provide a fraction of a percent of oil’s production, according to Bartis.

In January, he co-authored a coruscating report for Rand’s National Defense Research Institute that concluded the U.S. Defense Department received no benefit from its considerable investment in biofuels. (The Pentagon replied that every domestically produced barrel of biofuels improves U.S. energy security.)

Bartis believes that algae has more potential but is still “a research topic,” and the industry needs to mature.

Another knock against some biofuels is their carbon footprint.

Some fuels, such as palm oil grown in clear cut rainforests, require energy-intensive processing and adverse changes to land use that they result in higher carbon emissions than oil throughout their “lifecycle,” according to research by James Hileman principal research engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.

Hileman said that the biofuels industry will get better at reducing its carbon footprint as it matures, but a headlong rush into biofuels without this kind of analysis would be a mistake.

Commercially viable in 2020?

None of this, however, precludes the possibility that individual biofuel companies will be successful.

One particular bright spot in biofuels has been Solazyme, a San Francisco-based company that grows algae in the dark by feeding them sugars. The company raised about $200 million in an initial public offering in May.

Cameron Byers, Solazyme’s senior vice president and general manager of fuels and chemicals, said the company could produce renewable oils at $3.44 per gallon in a purpose-built commercial plant.

Solazyme recently tested its fuel, which reduces lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions 66-93 percent compared to petroleum-based fuels, in a U.S. Navy helicopter, Byers wrote in an email.

Solazyme may be a good investment, but experts noted that the process still requires feeding sugars or other biomass to the algae, which limits its scalability. There is more hope for photosynthetic processes that require only sunlight – ExxonMobil has invested in one such venture, calledSynthetic Genomics – but that could be years away.

Meanwhile, many algae companies are using the algae for other end uses, such as cosmetics, supplements and food, since biofuels are generally too expensive currently to be commercially viable, according to Mackinnon Lawrence, a biofuels industry analyst who recently authored a report for Pike Research on the industry.

“The fuels market is just looking further off than people were hoping for,” Lawrence said.

How far off?

Lawrence said it could be 2020 before biofuels have a significant impact on the market.

Bartis argued by analogy that the date could be further off still.

“When I joined the Energy Department in 1978, we were sure that photovoltaic (solar panels) were five years away from being commercially viable,” Bartis said. “They’ve been five years away ever since.”

Editor’s Note: This cross post comes to us courtesy of our content partners over at Txchnologist. Author credit goes to Matthew Van Dusen.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.


  • Reply July 5, 2011


    The author should read both the U. Kansas and MIT mass balance analysis reports for biofuels and particularly algae. Their dependence on peak petro and peak phosphate fertilizers cause them to be net negative energy producers – not to mention not even close to being sustainable. Only the ignorant continue to view biofuels as any thing more than an emergency source of energy, or a tool for the recovery of wastes – only which about 3% are feasible for biofuels. Hype is an understatement when it comes to biofuel as an energy source.

  • Reply July 6, 2011


    Batteries won’t work in airliners anytime soon, the Saudi’s are already planning to diversify their economy for when their oil runs out, coal has a worse carbon footprint, and fracking for gas turns tapwater into flamethrowers.u00a0 Biofuels are sustainably scalable using biomass-based technologies rather than lipid-based technologies.u00a0 Keep believing the oil industry if you wish, but oil is not sustainable and besides, there are two billion people switching from bicycles to cars in China and India and demand for what’s remaining is simply going to go up, further pushing up the price.

    • Reply July 6, 2011


      You don’t seem to get mass balance analysis or what is necessary to produce large scale commercial biomass. Biomass technologies at the scale necessary to make a significant contribution to the loss of petroleum are just as dependent on petroleum and phosphate fertilizers as lipid based biofuel technologies. The answer to peak oil is solar related technologies – photovoltaic, wind, wave and tide and possibly thorium based nuclear power developed in the 1960s by the US and now being implemented in India and China. Thorium being melt down proof and 400 times more abundant than uranium with a far shorter half-life.u00a0 nnRegarding battery driven flight – I would have agreed with you up to a couple of years ago. Now however there are a host of commercial battery powered drone aircraft applications doing quite well. There is far more hope/probability for battery technology improvement than there is for finding substantial more phosphates for agriculture. Current estimates is that our phosphate reserves will run out in another 30 years – about the same time the world population reaches 9 billion. Pissing phosphates away on biofuel production is extraordinarily and willfully ignorant – just plain stupid – until we have a substitute for human food production. Phosphate is probably the most critical of the non-renewable resources that we are running out of – yet it gets next to no press.

  • Reply July 6, 2011


    To learn about the fast track commercialization of the algae production industry you may want to check out the National Algae Association, the trade association.

    • Reply July 6, 2011


      I’m very familiar with the NAA. They are one of the few enterprises actually making money from algae biofuels – other than those those public companies enjoying private investor funds. Having produced algae commercially for the last 40 years, I’m also quite familiar with it’s economics and requirements. If I saw the slightest probability of economic opportunity in producing it as fuel either as biomass or algae oil, I would be employing my expertise to that end, but after looking at the last 80 years of research on the subject, a couple hundred of companies efforts to commercialize algae biofuels, the economics, mass balance analysis and it’s dependence on peak petro and peak phosphate based fertilizers – I see zip chance of large scale algae biofuel production sufficient to be a significant as a stand alone primary energy producer.

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