Boeing ramps up biofuel expectations

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Boeing has revised its alternative fuel certification forecast as Air New Zealand (ANZ) and Continental Airlines ready for trials using 50% biofuel blends in December and January, respectively.

The airframer now agrees with fuel technology firm UOP that certification could happen with a 50% blend as opposed to a 10% blend in 2010, Boeing director of business analysis for environmental strategy Darrin Morgan tells ATI.

Following the first airline alternative fuels trial in February, during which Virgin Atlantic used a 20% mix of babassu oil and coconut oil, Boeing managing director of environmental strategy Billy Glover said in July that he expected low percentage blends to achieve certification from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) by 2013.

While Boeing expects more airline interest once certification occurs, its focus is on helping early adapters prove the concept.

"Eventually these aren't alternative fuels, they're just fuels," Morgan says.

In the meantime, government support of research and development and commercialization of these new technologies is going to be important, he says, adding the price of the newest biofuels will be between $70-$90 per barrel without government subsidies.

During forthcoming demonstrations, ANZ and Continental will use second generation biofuels. Feedstocks used in the newest alternative fuels are improving in terms of sustainability versus earlier versions, Morgan says.

ANZ will fly a Boeing 747-400 with one of four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines powered by a 50-50 mix of Jet A and biofuel derived from jatropha plants. The two-hour trial will start in Auckland on 30 December.

Continental will test a blend of 50% Jet A and 50% biofuel containing 5% algae oil and 95% jatropha oil.

"We selected algae and jatropha because neither competes with food or water resources and neither contributes to deforestation. In addition, both provide significantly more bio-oil per acre than traditional sources such as soy," a Continental spokeswoman says.

The right CFM International CFM56-7B engine of a Boeing 737-800 will use the blend during Continental's two-hour trial in Houston on 7 January.

Fuel produced from algae oil and jatropha oil is indistinguishable from Jet A, unlike ethanol or biodiesels, which means the alternative fuel is compatible with existing infrastructure such as tanks, pipelines and aircraft engines, a UOP spokeswoman says. Commercial adoption could lag if biofuels use poses major infrastructure challenges, she adds.

But obstacles beyond infrastructure exist as today's technology cannot produce commercial quantities of biofuels, says Tim Zenk, VP of corporate affairs for Sapphire Energy, which sourced, extracted and refined oil from algae in Kona, Hawaii for UOP to refine into fuel for the Continental trial.

"[We're] creating new infrastructure to grow and produce those fuels [on a commercial scale]" he says.

San Diego-based Sapphire started with roughly 600USgal (2,280 litres) of algae for Continental. The company expects to produce 350 barrels per day of crude derived from algae in three years, with production ramping up to 10,000 barrels a day in five years.

Zenk predicts algae biofuel blends will start to seriously displace petroleum-based fuels in five years, with worldwide scale available in the next decade.

Plant crude producer Terasol Energy provided both ANZ and Continental with roughly 10,000 USgal (37,900 litres) of jatropha crude oil, Terasol cofounder and president Sanjay Pingle tells ATI. This translates to 100t of jatropha seeds, which requires roughly 20 hectares of land.

Jatropha was sourced mostly from Tanzania and central India for the forthcoming trials it will take at least two years until commercial quantities of jatropha are available for crude, he says.

Plant seeds contain between 32% and 35% oil, of which 30% to 32% can be extracted for crude, Pingle explains, noting improvements in extraction could speed up scale, as could mechanized cultivation.

"If [we] need millions of barrels, we need to have mechanized operations. Right now everything is being done manually," he says.