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Making biofuels fly

Making biofuels fly

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KLM and EADS see a future in aviation biofuels.

AMSTERDAM -- Aviation biofuel could go a long way to reducing the airline industry’s carbon emissions, but prices must first tumble, government policies must support it, and producers must deploy eco-friendly techniques.

That message came through on a panel discussion here today at the Cleantech Forum Amsterdam, where speakers from Dutch airline KLM and Airbus parent EADS both also said that biofuels must work with the existing engines and infrastructure.

Thijs Komen, KLM director of business innovation, said that KLM paid five times the going price of fossil based jet fuel for a trial passenger flight that it flew over Holland in 2009. For a company with an annual fuel bill of $2 million, a five-fold premium would be unthinkable.

But Komen was cautiously optimistic the price will decline. “One to two years from now we’ll see a price that’s two to two-and-a-half as much as fossil fuel,” he said. A European carbon emissions trading scheme that applies to airlines starting in 2012 will contribute to that fall, as it will increase the price of traditional carbon containing jet fuel – he noted. The carbon in the kerosene that typically goes into aviation fuel would bear a cost.

When will aviation biofuel actually become less expensive than fossil fuel? “I don’t know,” Komen answered. “I hope it’s not 2018/19. I hope it’s sooner than that.”

EADS paid an even higher premium for the biofuel it used in separate demo flights last year in Germany and the UK, at the ILA Berlin and Farnborough air shows. “It was almost unbelievable, so I won’t tell you what it was,” quipped vice president and executive adviser for energy and propulsion John Price.

One reason EADS paid a fortune: it used what Price called a “third generation” biofuel made from microalgae, supplied by Argentina’s Biocumbistibles del Chubut.

Price noted that for biofuels to be viable, its production cannot compete against the production of food or the availability of fresh water, or threaten biodiversity. Biocumbustibles del Chubut harvests its biofuel from seawater, a process that meets those requirements, he noted. Komen said KLM subscribes to sustainability plans drawn up by the World Wildlife Fund.

Both Price and Komen also said that biofuels must arrive in “drop-in” form that allows airlines to use them with existing aircraft. “Biofuel has to have exactly the same specifications as fossil fuel. We cannot change the infrastructure, we cannot change our aircraft on short notice,” Komen said.

He also called for government policies that would support the development of biofuels, including subsidies and a legislative framework that establishes incentives and “a level playing field.” He noted that current European biofuel legislation applies only to road biofuel.

Innovation and “improved feedstocks” – the raw material of biofuel - will also help drive prices down, he said.

Chris Ryan, executive vice president of business development for Englewood, Colo.-based biofuel maker Gevo Inc., claimed that the price of biofuels is already less volatile, and in some cases, lower than, fossil fuels. Gevo makes biofuel from corn and sugar cane, and plans to also produce it using agricultural residue and wood.

That idea should have some resonance with Coca Cola. On a separate panel looking at industrial materials, Coca Cola director of strategic planning for environment and water Cees van Dongen said that Coca Cola wants to eventually make recyclable bio-based plastic bottles from the discarded cellulose of sugar cane. The bio-plastic bottles that it has started using in some countries today come from the sugar cane’s sugar, a process that competes against food production.

Photo: Sustainability Ninja

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure