Making the transition to biofuels is more than making the technology work - issues like pricing, commodity sharing and achieving coherent policies need to be addressed
First the good news on aviation biofuels: drop-in technology works like a dream, there are plenty of potential feedstock sources and the certification process is about to become as clear as a child's elementary school primer.
More problematic is how to overcome the real-world stumbling blocks in the path of such a radical shift to a new energy source. These include the issue of achieving consensus on sustainability criteria against a background of notoriously fickle oil prices - and that is before even more fickle carbon prices prevail, when the environmental impact of air travel is gauged in the most unforgiving commercial terms on the trading room floor.
© Rex Features/Gareth Burgess
Then there is the small matter of other potential users of biofuel muscling into feedstock or refinery time, not to mention a range of confusing subsidies and governmental mandates that distort the policy patchwork that is the basis on which the global industry is expected to operate.
This year's influential Aviation and Environment summit in Geneva saw vigorous debate on precisely this last point: the critical issue of how aviation can tap into its share of the biofuel pipeline.
It is not so much a case of making further strides in the areas of technology or accelerating biofuel certification in engines, which is not beyond aviation's wit. It is more a case of forcing the industry to leave the relatively safe and assured precincts of the engine testbench and start building a business case in an effort to assure its low carbon survival.
At the summit, British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh highlighted current difficulties when he reported that the airline's search to find a greener fuel alternative had been fruitless because it could not find sufficient quantities of a future type.
BA last year teamed with UK engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce to launch a scientific test programme using an R-R RB211 engine from a BA Boeing 747 to investigate the viability of alternative fuels. Up to four alternative fuels were to be selected through a joint tender process to undergo laboratory and rig testing by the end of March.
But March came and went with no sign of testing. "Our experience showed that we were slightly ahead of the production available and we were struggling to find the 60,000 litres [15,830USgal]," says Walsh, who still hopes to secure a substantial volume to use in a true test environment on an R-R rig later this year.
Perhaps at issue were the key criteria for selection: suitability, sustainability and industrial capability - and most importantly - one that demonstrated clear evidence of the potential for mass production and global distribution.
Billy Glover, Boeing's director of environmental performance, suggests that at the time it was the quantity specified that was tricky. "What they were asking for was a quantity of fuel at the 'innovation' level. It's a no-man's land between laboratory test quantities and those that have benefited from a production scale-up that have already benefited from experimentation," he says.
Only a month earlier, the UK Ministry of Defence admitted that its efforts to fly non-crude oil-derived 100% synthetic fuel in one of its nine Lockheed TriStar tanker/transports proved to be a non-starter after one of its partner design authorities expressed concerns over using the drop-in alternative.
All Royal Air Force aircraft, apart from a few small training types, can now use 100% synthetic fuel after the UK standards setting body and the MoD amended jet fuel specification DEFSTAN 91-91 last April. This gave approval for aircraft to fly on South African fuels pioneer Sasol's 100% synthetic jet fuel from coal, nine years after its 50% blend secured approval.
The TriStar effort failed to get off the ground not only because the design authority got cold feet, or because this particular alternative stamps the environment with carbon footprint that makes Jet A look virginal. It was because no-one has yet flown the 100% synthetic jet fuel as commercial production would require expensive changes to Sasol's refinery and because the diesel with which the Fischer-Tropsch fuel has to be cut is far too prized a commodity to fritter away on the capricious whimsies of aviation.
The only experiences to date with Sasol 100% synthetic fuel have been tests to prove it is fit for purpose, something that does not augur well for the availability of novel fuels.
It is a Fischer-Tropsch candidate fuel - a generic 50% blend - that is at the head of the queue to be signed off under the new D-XXXX fuel specification
And while this tried and tested process may provide the basis for a future certification environment that ushers in a community of viable candidates, many in the industry believe that hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) represents a far more promising drop-in route to produce a biojet fuel blend, because it is the surest route to securing volume.
One alternative fuels expert present in Geneva says that the success of recent flight demonstrations has reinforced this view. "Approval of HVO in the specification could happen within 12-18 months and will follow on and benefit from the Fischer-Tropsch approval that is likely to be on the books by September 2009," he says, adding that aviation will then face two further challenges.
"Firstly, finding an economic incentive for airlines to purchase such a fuel, given that it is likely to be more expensive compared with current jet fuel and secondly, finding significant volumes of a suitable and sustainable vegetable oil to make an impact on aviation carbon dioxide emissions."
He says that in the longer term, while the great panacea might be oil from algae, in the short to medium term, many in the industry believe that the only real option for significant volumes is to use palm oil.
"If this is the case, will the industry be able to agree on a definition of sustainable palm oil and, possibly even more challenging, convince society that such a thing really exists? Without hydrogenated palm oil, it is hard to imagine that there will be very much bio-derived jet fuel around for many years to come," he says.
Aviation's vision is for a significant supply of biofuel in the jet fuel mix to be a market reality before 2020. But what aviation wants, aviation does not always get.
In Geneva, Jason Pyle, chief executive of Sapphire Energy, warned delegates that aviation was simply "not in the debate" compared with other industries and risked failing to secure enough biofuel in requisite quantities in the face of powerful, competing interests.
Sanjay Pingle, president of Terasol Energy, added to the chorus of fuel supplier disdain, warning that if the industry does not start to engage in finding new sources of the biofuel supply chain, it could end up buying alternatives on the same terms as it now buys petroleum-based jet fuel.
Richard Altman, who leads the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), acknowledges the naysayers, who he believes generally fall into two categories: those that do not believe that aviation is the best use of low carbon alternatives and those dissenting airlines who fear the inevitable issues in starting a new industry and doubt how the International Air Transport Association's near-term aspirational biofuels goals can be met.
He says that while the former are correct in an academic sense, they overlook the fact that aviation, with its strong systems engineering capability and ease of distribution, could be the best entry point to "spin-on" larger markets.
"That was the case when high temperature materials invented in the space programme ultimately achieved far larger markets in commercial cookware," says Altman, who asks: "If the world wants to execute an Apollo-type programme to achieve broad development and deployment of biofuels, why not rely on the people who have a track record in those types of programmes to lead the way?"
The second camp simply fears deploying new technology. Here, CAAFI has purposefully not set an aspirational target for alternative fuels, but thinks it critical that a path to deployment that relies on multiple feedstocks and multiple processes near airports for ease of distribution is charted.
"Perhaps coming from the manufacturing sector where we routinely have to deal with production learning curves, we are more comfortable than some airlines with the idea that new technologies cost more early on," says Altman. "Deployment of these fuels do represent a major challenge and should not be taken lightly. But the process of building a new fuel paradigm is not unlike other technology introductions that we have experience of.
"We just need to think in terms of 'how many' success models we can achieve at production levels when we consider deployment initially. That will be the key to biofuels and all alternatives success."
Many at the recent summit insisted that policymakers support industry efforts to accelerate the commercialisation and implementation of aviation biofuels by providing research and development to enable scaling-up of pilot projects to demonstrate commercial viability.
John Begin, who heads the International Civil Aviation Organisation's co-ordination efforts. was having none of it, however, kicking the ball squarely back to aviation and insisting that in policy terms, the industry was charged with shaping its own future.
"If biofuel is to continue to be seen as an option it has to come to terms with aspects that need to be addressed in a policy-making dimension. It needs to establish a broadly held vision and commitment.
"It needs to be specific too and state how much by when, what industrial scale is required. It needs to lay down what will be the public versus private rules of engagement, what will be the risk-sharing profile and mitigation strategies within that."