In the U.S. and other countries, research is ramping up into aviation biofuels, which can be used in standard jet engines with no conversions needed. Biofuels promise much lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful compounds as well as price stability and geopolitical security.
Commercial-scale development of aviation biofuels is still in the early stages, and as experts explained at the Airports Going Green conference in Chicago earlier in November, viable aviation biofuel industries would look significantly different in different regions of the country. With growing competition for government research dollars and investment between regions, Midwestern players from the industry, academic and investor realms are trying to position the region as the national leader.
Why the Midwest?
The Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative (MASBI) is a partnership between different players with an interest in aviation biofuel development, led by airline companies, the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Chicago business incubator Clean Energy Trust.
They say there are numerous reasons why the Midwest is particularly qualified to be the country’s aviation biofuel capitol. The region has no shortage of agricultural waste that could be tapped as a fuel feedstock, and it also has the physical space, infrastructure, manpower and expertise to develop other potential feedstock crops.
A map produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows the Midwest offers by far the greatest biofuel feedstock potential, especially central and northern Illinois – including the Chicago area – and northern Iowa. Backers, hoping to avoid the controversies surrounding corn-based ethanol, emphasize they will only use feedstocks that don’t create “food or fuel” dilemmas.
Also, aviation biofuels must be refined close to where they are going to be used, since transporting them long distances would torpedo chances for being cost-competitive with petroleum — giving the Midwest, with many major airports located near rail hubs like Chicago and Kansas City, another advantage.
The Midwest has a significant number of scientists and engineers with expertise in the biological and technological fields relevant to aviation biofuel development. For example, Purdue University associate professor Richard Meilan, who is studying the potential of genetically modified fast-growing poplars as an aviation biofuel feedstock. And at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois, scientists are developing new oil seed plant strains that could offer cheaper and more efficient aviation biofuel feedstocks.
The airline industry also has a major presence in the Midwest, including corporate headquarters of Boeing and United Airlines in Chicago and the fuel and refining company Honeywell UOP headquartered in the Chicago suburbs. The U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Navy are all investing heavily in biofuel development to fuel ships and planes, including by partnering with private companies to build biofuel refineries.
“It’s a very short amount of time to create a brand new industry,” said United Airlines global sustainability director Jimmy Samartzis, noting that the federal government, airlines and manufacturers officially formed a partnership on aviation biofuels in 2006. “At the same time we’re cautious about the steps we take and how we get there – it’s not a sprint.”