Building Towards a Biofuels Future

14 October 2010 (Last Updated October 14th, 2010 18:30)

Biofuels are being hailed as the economic and environmental savior for the aviation industry. Alex Hawkes talks to Richard Altman, executive director of the commercial aviation alternative fuels initiative (CAAFI), to discover how collaboration is needed to ready this vital market for take-off.

Building Towards a Biofuels Future

In recent years the price of fuel has become the single highest cost for many airlines, driven by dwindling resources and increasing pressure to commit to a more more sustainable business model. In 2006, the commercial aviation alternative fuels initiative (CAAFI) formed within the US as a coalition of airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy companies, academics and governmental agencies to explore the vast potential of a biofuel based future for aviation.

On the back of a year of phenomenal growth and successful outings including the Farnborough Air Show in the UK in July 2010, Alex Hawkes spoke to Richard Altman, executive director of CAAFI to find how collaboration between stakeholders is needed to further develop the sector.

Alex Hawkes: What factors prompted the 2006 decision to form a new organisation specifically focused on encouraging the adoption of alternative fuels in the aviation sector?

Richard Altman: CAAFI was formed in 2006 following a finding by the US Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC), which strongly recommended that more activity was required to diversify the industry’s energy portfolio.

“In recent years the price of fuel has become the single highest cost for many airlines.”

Around this time, there had also been strong movement in other areas of transportation towards biofuels, and rather then become a minority player, we felt it was time to be upfront with the introduction of biofuels into the aviation sector. We therefore came to the conclusion that the industry was ripe for a coalition amongst airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy producers, researchers, international participants and US Government agencies.

This group was built on a sense of urgency – by the need to obtain environmental gain and to improve the economics, which otherwise would leave aviation wedded to liquid fuels without a viable alternative or competition for fuel supplies.

AH: And what progress has there been since then?

RA: Since our first formal meeting in October 2006, CAAFI has been extremely active.

Our work has even spurred a finding in a joint White House report by the US Department of Energy (DoE) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which identified aviation – both military and commercial – as a preferred transport market mechanism for moving biofuels into the market place. This was a very important development as prior to 2006, biofuels wasn’t even considered for use in aviation.

Confidence has been rising ever since, and a recent poll highlighted that 37% of biofuel producers now believe there will be one billion gallons of biofuel in circulation in the jet fuel business by 2020 – which could be a significant share of the overall aviation fuel consumption.

Obviously there have been a number of significant technical developments and certification approvals along the way that have helped open the market. In September 2009, the first new fuel specification in 20 years – ASTM D7566 – was passed, which approves the use of blends of up to 50% synthetic hydrocarbons in aviation fuel.

“Collaboration between stakeholders is needed to further develop the biofuels sector.”

By the end of that year the Department of Energy and the air force had also published a peer reviewed process for the execution of carbon life cycle analysis.

Meanwhile, there was also the news that 12 airlines – including FedEx Express, Lufthansa German Airlines and United Airlines – had signed MoUs with AltAir and Rentech to begin purchase negotiations for alternative aviation fuels.

These are all important steps forward for both aviation and the biofuels industry as a whole.

AH: Which key players are currently helping to pioneer the future of biofuels in aviation?

RA: CAAFI works closely with a number of alternative fuel producers. An interesting example is Solayzme, which uses algal biotechnology to clean fuels and has recently delivered 15,000gal of fuel to the US Navy for testing,

One of the most important players is UOP, which, in my opinion, can be viewed as having a similar role in biofuels as Intel has for computers. The company, which is part of the Honeywell group, licenses its technology to end product users and its solutions can now be seen in almost every single biofuel production programme on the market.

AH: I understand that CAAFI has also had a large presence at key trade events, including this year’s Farnborough International Air Show. What benefits do these types of events bring to your organisation?

RA: CAAFI has a number of goals for attending large industry gatherings, but specifically at Farnborough we had three targets.

“The industry is on the cusp of going forward and that biofuel production is an emerging reality.”

The first was to prove to the biofuel producers that the aviation industry can be viewed as a “single buyer”. Suppliers can access the entire sector at Farnborough and such “one-stop shopping” ensures that the future demand is present and can be easily accessed again through similar events.

Another is to prove that we are taking our industry goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020 seriously and that there is sufficient biofuels movement at the moment to achieve that target. There have been opinions to the contrary – particularly in Europe – and we wanted to put that criticism to rest.

So by going to the air show, we were able to demonstrate to the biofuel producers that the industry is on the cusp of going forward and that biofuel production is an emerging reality.

Lastly and somewhat ironically, we have been trying to promote the development of biofuel programmes and projects worldwide. Yet, there turned out to be 13 different US states represented at the event and we in fact ended up intensifying levels of dialogues on the domestic front. We also, however, increased the volume of interest in projects in different countries and our success in the air show was more than we could have hoped.

AH: Are biofuels likely to experience as much uptake in the military sector faster as they will in the commercial?

RA: I see it happening simultaneously. Since the commercial aviation sector uses ten times as much fuel as the military, the military actively came to us for an alliance as they simply don’t purchase enough to make it commercially viable to a producer to rely solely on the military to support a production facility.

“The industry needs a new sustainable fuel dynamic, which must encompass both economical and environmental elements.”

Another factor is that presently the ability of the US military to make long-term purchase agreements is extremely limited. By law they are unable to make agreements over a five year period. Airlines don’t have that problem and they have the economic mechanisms and latitude in place to handle contracting over a longer period of time.

The military sector has embraced the commercial sector and it’s an area which both parties are looking to go forward together with – which in turn benefits the biofuel producer community.

AH: Finally, looking ahead to the future, how essential is the 2020 carbon neutrality deadline to the progress of biofuels?

RA: This is a marathon and 2020 is a quantifiable and compelling interim step for us. From an environmental perspective, it will allow us to turn a huge corner but work needs to continue to make the industry more economically viable. The pricing of petroleum quite simply disadvantages the aviation industry and there just isn’t a reliable and economical future if we pursue solely oil based fuel supplies.

The industry needs a new sustainable fuel dynamic, which must encompass both economical and environmental elements as well as the social benefits of a secure domestic supply and the creation of jobs that goes along with it.