Whither Aviation Biofuels: When, If Ever, Will We Be Flying Green?

Though not making the headlines with quite the speed of a few years ago, research and deployment of aviation biofuels continues. For good reason, despite some pretty amazing light planes flying powered by solar panels, it’s pretty unlikely that something the size of a commercial jetliner will be getting off the ground and completing its journey on solar power, at least any time soon. Powered aviation is simply a seriously energy-intensive activity.

Indeed, while for motorized ground transportation electricity has proven itself as more efficient than converting plants or waste products into biofuels and then burning them, for aviation liquid biofuels make a lot of sense in reducing emissions.

eu airline carbon tax

image via Shutterstock

So where are we at, at the start of 2013?

All the enthusiastic statements from airline execs from some five years back, proclaiming that biofuels would start being used regularly on commercial flights within a few years, to put it bluntly, seem somewhat ridiculous in hindsight. We’re just not there yet.

Basically, despite many test flights being made, some with passengers—including the KLM’s NYC to Amsterdam flights happening over the next six months—biofuel use has made very few inroads into actual commercial usage.

All of which is too bad in many ways, with multiple studies showing that biofuels are more efficient in flight than fossil fuels, both in terms of engine efficiency, and in reduction of carbon emissions. Camelina in particular has been shown to be able to reduce emissions by 84%.

Work certainly continues though: in particular the US military is moving strongly forward with efforts to develop biofuels for use in both naval and air operations. Even though there was some vocal opposition in Congress last year, based on cost, the Navy’s Green Strike Force program keeps pushing forward, partnering with the Department of Energy to build refineries capable of producing 30 million gallons of biofuels annually.

The military concern in all of this is, of course, about being able to securely supply fuel for operations and reduce risk to troops having to supply that fuel, rather than any primarily environmental concern. But no matter, having a goal to halve fossil fuel usage by ships, aircraft and other vehicles by 2020—when the military is the single largest consumer of energy in the nation—is something to applaud.

More than commercial airlines pushing development of aviation biofuels, the US military’s enthusiasm for them could well bring down costs, making commercial deployment all the easier.

From his home in New York City, Mat McDermott writes about energy and resource consumption, environmental ethics, climate change, issues of animal welfare and animal consciousness, and the response of religious communities to environmental problems. He was editor of business, politics, and energy content for TreeHugger.com from 2008 though 2012. Beyond writing, Mat is an Advisor for The Bhumi Project, a Hindu environmental organization based in the UK, affiliated with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.