Boeing and Virgin Australia to analyse biofuel feedstock lifecycles

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Virgin Australia has partnered with Boeing and Australia's University of Queensland to conduct a lifecycle analysis of locally grown biofuel feedstocks algae, pongamia, and sugar as part of its intention to invest in a local bio-derived jet fuel project.

While Virgin has made the leap to tentatively commit to a single conversion process capable of producing biofuel from a range of feedstocks, it is now tackling the vexing question of which feedstocks to use from a sustainability and economic perspective.

"The issue with biofuels is economics. We need to get a better idea of what the economics of these fuels are. The price point is going to be important. So with this particular project they're looking at the whole cycle, from growing it to transporting it to aircraft, and how much it will cost," said David White, the sustainability and climate change manager for Virgin Australia.

He cautioned the analysis "doesn't mean we'll necessarily use the feedstocks but it will help us guide our decision".

The life cycle reports, which are due by the end of next year, will evaluate the feedstocks against a sustainability standard in development for the region. White said the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels' international standard "takes into account all of the relevant criteria but also things like child labour, which aren't necessarily relevant to Australia."

Local airlines, including Virgin Australia, will be able to give input to the committee developing the standard, which the Biofuels Association of Australia is heading up with representatives from all parts of the supply chain.

"People say a biofuel is sustainable. But do we really know it is? That's why we need this criteria," White said.

Of particular concern to White is the sustainability of sugar. While the aviation industry has called for biofuel feedstocks not to interfere with the food chain, Australia produces an excess amount of sugar crop. "Sugar is something that needs to pass the sustainability test. That's critical," he said.

Under the University of Queensland's study, sugar will be used to grow yeast yielding not alcohol but isoprenes, which can be "easily cracked into jet fuel", said Queensland Professor Peter Gresshoff.

Virgin and Boeing did not release funding figures but White said the Queensland government was providing funding "to a tune of a few million dollars". A report released last week on the potential for aviation biofuels in Australia found Queensland one of the most suitable regions to grow feedstocks. Queensland-based Mackay Sugar Limited is involved with the study, as is a local refiner.

This is another lifecycle analysis partnership for Boeing, who last month released a report with Yale University analysing jatropha's lifecycle in Brazil. Virgin Australia and Boeing are members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuels User Group.