In June a Dutch air force Apache flew a demonstration part-powered by algae and cooking oil
In the run-up to Farnborough both of the major commercial airframers have launched new initiatives aimed at bringing the prospect of a low-carbon, biofuel-powered aviation industry closer to reality, amid a sharpening awareness of the urgent need for investment in fossil fuel alternatives - among governments and industry players alike.
Late May brought the news that Boeing had partnered PetroChina to evaluate the potential to establish a sustainable aviation biofuels industry in China, focusing on "agronomy, energy inputs and outputs, lifecycle emissions analysis, infrastructure and government policy support".
In June, at the ILA air show in Berlin, Airbus owner EADS unveiled a hybrid eco-helicopter concept - which will be exhibited again at Farnborough - and flew an aircraft fuelled by algae-based biofuel. It has since embarked on a project that envisages a new biofuels plant in Brazil.
The assessment being conducted by Boeing and PetroChina is intended to support an agreement between China's National Energy Administration and the US Trade and Development Agency, which pledged to promote commercialisation and use of aviation biofuels though the US-China Energy Cooperation Program (ECP), a public-private partnership. Other US participants include technical consultancy AECOM, Honeywell fuel technology subsidiary UOP, and United Technologies, which owns Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Sundstrand and Sikorsky. Air China and PetroChina will lead the Chinese team.
Boeing's research and technology unit and China's academy of science are to engage other research partners in efforts to develop algae-based aviation biofuel, having already resolved to establish a joint laboratory focused on algal growth and the technologies required to harvest and process algae. The laboratory will be in Qingdao, home of the Chinese academy of science's institute of bioenergy and bioprocess technology. Air China, meanwhile, is targeting a trial flight of biofuel based on biomass grown and processed in China. To this end it is working with PetroChina, Boeing and UOP. PetroChina will provide the biomass, which will be processed into jet fuel by UOP.
Boeing stresses that the plant sources being considered as part of its biofuel efforts - which have also included ventures in Australia and the Middle East - are "only ones that don't distort the global food-chain, compete with fresh water resources or lead to unintended land use change".
EADS flew an aircraft powered by a purely algae-based biofuel at ILA
Darrin Morgan, Boeing Commercial Airplanes' director of sustainable biofuels strategy, says: "Our approach is basically to work with regional stakeholders that are interested in similar goals around sustainable aviation fuels, and to enable and catalyse efforts."
The airframer is joining efforts to establish a harmonised sustainability certification system via the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, which is co-ordinated by Swiss university EFPL and involves farmers, companies, experts, governments and on-government organisations in a broad panoply of interested parties.
In June the European Commission revealed its decision "to encourage industry, governments and NGOs to set up certification schemes for all types of biofuels, including those imported into the EU" and set out the conditions that such voluntary schemes must meet in order to be recognised.
In addition to being independently audited, a scheme must focus on biofuels offering high greenhouse gas savings while avoiding those made using materials sourced from tropical forests, recently deforested areas, drained peatland, wetland or highly biodiverse areas. The EC's move in favour of third-party certification systems is hailed by Morgan as "a big milestone".
"It's widely expected that the roundtable on sustainable biofuels will be seen as an eligible standard," says Boeing. Alongside its involvement with the Roundtable on Sustainable Fuel Users Group, Boeing participates in the Sustainable Fuel Users Group, in which is joined by a host of airlines - and its rival Airbus.
With its demonstration flight of an aircraft powered by a purely algae-based biofuel at Berlin's ILA air show, Airbus parent EADS reached a watershed in its individual work on biofuels development. Due to constraints on the fuel's availability, the flight was conducted not with an Airbus aircraft but with a Diamond DA42 New Generation light twin. Only minor modifications to the aircraft's Austro Engine AE300 powerplants were required, says EADS. By the manufacturer's estimates, the algae-based biofuel contains one-eighth the level of hydrocarbons in kerosene derived from crude oil.
The algae oil that made EADS's ILA flight possible was delivered by Argentina's Biocombustibles del Chubut and refined into biofuel by Verfahrenstechnik Schwedt, of Germany. It was also at ILA that EADS and its rotorcraft unit Eurocopter signed a deal with Biocombustibles del Chubut to evaluate the potential to create a biofuel production facility in Brazil, with its chief technical officer Jean Botti paying tribute to the Argentinian company's "unmatched experience" in developing microalgae for use in biofuel.
The partners have committed to investigate the feasibility not just of using microalgae farming to produce aviation-grade biofuel at a plant in Brazil, but also of conducting helicopter flight tests with the biofuel. "The concept of local production of algae biofuel is particularly adapted to helicopter operations, and opens new business opportunities," says Didier Renaux, vice-president of business engineering at Eurocopter.
A demonstrator featuring a diesel-electric hybrid propulsion system also reflects the priority EADS has attached to developing more "eco-friendly" helicopters, and will be on display at Farnborough. Its manufacturer claims it could be twice as fuel efficient as a typical twin-turbine helicopter such as the Eurocopter EC135.
EADS's Innovation Works unit led the initiative as part of its eco2avia project, described by research team leader Peter Jaenker as "a vehicle which transports a lot of concepts we want to develop to improve the eco efficiency of our vehicles: one is the algae project, and the other is looking for new propulsion systems which are more efficient for helicopters".
Jaenker sees potential for the hybrid helicopter technology to be brought to market circa 2020, an important deadline for the aviation industry given that the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe targets a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by that year, compared with 2000 levels.
Boeing is also involved in work toward green helicopter operation and algae-based biofuel development: indeed, both boxes were ticked on 16 June, when the Royal Netherlands Air Force flew a Boeing AH-64D Apache partly powered by a biofuel made from algae-based biomass and used cooking oil. The biofuel was mixed 50:50 with traditional jet fuel. "No engine or airframe modifications were made prior to flight," says Boeing.
The Dutch biofuels test, one of seven planned within its biofuel flight test programme, came two months after the US Navy conducted its first supersonic demonstration of a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet powered by blended fuel of which camelina-based biofuel composed 50%. The US Air Force has previously used a camelina mixture to power a flight of a Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II.
The role of the US military in stimulating investment in biofuels draws praise from Morgan. "The Department of Defense's - and particularly the navy's - leadership on this has made measurable concrete differences in the past year, since they really started stepping up: educating the US administration, educating policymakers that in order to get to this promised land that we all desire around sustainability and renewable fuels, it's going to take a long-term approach... It's a decades-long effort. These types of fuels are going up against an incumbent fuel source - fossil fuels - that has had 150 years to mature and benefit from its own support from governments."
Consequently, Morgan adds his voice to the aviation industry's calls for the sector to be granted priority access to biofuel on the basis that no other energy options are available. He is also calling for "support mechanisms", perhaps in the form of price guarantees or risk-limiting price collars, to protect the emergent biofuels industry from "the whipsaw of the competing incumbent fuel source" - a reference the volatility of petroleum prices - and in this respect cites Brazil's support of the ethanol industry as a precedent worth heeding.
Meanwhile, EADS is not ruling out the possibility that it will conduct another algae-powered test flight at Farnborough. In late June, the manufacturer had this to say: "We are still trying to make it possible - if we find enough biofuel by that time. The plane is available."