IN FOCUS: EU initiative to put alternative fuels into service

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A new EU-funded initiative, aimed at accelerating the more widespread use of alternative fuels in aviation, will see a group of stakeholders from across the board join together for the first time to begin a series of commercial flight tests later this year.

The three-year project, dubbed Initiative Towards sustAinable Kerosene for Aviation (ITAKA), is billed as being the first collaborative effort of its kind in Europe and includes stakeholders from all segments of the biofuel supply chain. Participants include Airbus, Embraer, Neste Oil, EADS, SkyNRG, Manchester Metropolitan University and feedstock producer Camelina Company España.

Aided by a €10 million ($13.1 million) grant from the EU's Seventh Framework research programme, feedstock growers, biofuel producers, logistics companies, aircraft manufacturers and researchers will work together to try and prove the case for a sustainable, scalable and viable alternative to kerosene. "The aim is to demonstrate that today in Europe we are able to produce sustainable biofuel for aviation," says Airbus product manager new energies Etienne Cabaré.

The project will contribute to the European Commission's Biofuel Flight Path Initiative, which is targeting annual production of 2 million tonnes of biofuel for use in aviation by 2020.

 Europe's ITAKA project is to start with a KLM flight campaign from Schiphol

ITAKA will focus on camelina crops grown in Spain by Camelina Company España as the primary feedstock, although used cooking oil will also play a part. Finland's Neste Oil will turn the camelina oil into a total 4,000t of NExBTL renewable aviation fuel, which will be blended with kerosene using the 50:50 ratio permitted by certifying body ASTM International. It will then be distributed for use in a series of European commercial flights.

"The aim is to start a flight campaign with KLM from [Amsterdam] Schiphol using Airbus and Embraer aircraft and the goal is to start the campaign by the end of the year," says Cabaré. "There will be at least 30 [long-haul] flights on Airbus aircraft but the routes have not been validated yet."

Cabaré adds that the flights will be carried out over a short period of time because "we can't afford to store a large amount of fuel during six months or so". The Airbus portion of the flight programme will use 1,500t of the 4,000t of fuel being produced under ITAKA. In addition, KLM Cityhopper will conduct Embraer 190 flights from Schiphol.

"Embraer is discussing with KLM Cityhopper the best combination for the number of flights, amount of sustainable drop-in kerosene available at Schiphol, and flight routes," says the Brazilian manufacturer.

At the end of the flight campaign, a sustainability study will be carried out using data collected during the trial. "We will be driving testing activities to understand more about the engine performance," says Cabaré. "We will drive tests on fuel systems to understand the long-term impact on the fuel system."

The flights will demonstrate "how well the entire value chain works", says Virpi Kröger, manager renewable aviation fuel at Neste Oil, "from growing the feedstock used, pressing the oil, refining it into fuel, managing the logistics involved and using the fuel on flights".

A number of airlines have already carried out well-publicised commercial flights powered partially by hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids fuels since ASTM gave the green light back in July 2011. But Cabaré describes the goal of ITAKA as being "to go a step further and to think about the incorporation of certain amounts of biofuel in aviation", and to prove that "aviation biofuel can become a real business".

Adds Kröger: "The aim of the [ITAKA] flights will be to complement trials carried out earlier as part of other initiatives. They will be used to increase our knowledge of how biofuels perform in aviation use."

Neste Oil is hoping that the project will improve the value chain for European renewable aviation fuel and encourage stakeholders to introduce alternative fuels on a wider scale. "ITAKA is an important step on the way to commercialising renewable aviation fuel as the project's demonstration activities will be market-driven," says Kröger.

She expects ITAKA's work to "encourage and speed up the development of renewable aviation fuels by fostering greater collaboration between all the stakeholders involved". Kröger describes ITAKA as "the first and largest collaborative project of its type at European level" and "a great opportunity to coordinate national initiatives in Europe and other initiatives around the world".

Kröger believes the aviation industry will move away from the "multiple new trials" that have been carried out to date. Instead, she expects to see a gradual move towards a "business as usual model" for using renewable aviation fuels. "This will call for more cooperation throughout the value chain, all the way from the authorities to end-users."


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 IATA will focus on camelina as feedstock

Feedstock grower Camelina Company España aims to prove, through ITAKA, that Spain has the potential to become a significant supplier of crops for use in the aviation fuel market. Its role in the project is to provide 10,000ha (24,700 acres) of land to demonstrate "the technical and economic viability of producing camelina oil on a large scale in Spain", explains the company's director, Yuri Herreras. "We are devoted to producing a sustainable feedstock for the aviation industry."

The land used to grow the crops will be agricultural land, but Herreras is quick to address concerns over competing with food crops. "We're targeting arid regions where farmers are producing cereal and we're proposing to them to start a rotational scheme where they introduce camelina during the fallow periods," he says. "It is agricultural land but it is not used during a certain period of time."

Another benefit of camelina, says Herreras, is that it is "a very hard crop" that can "tolerate frost and drought, and can be cultivated using current agricultural machines". Camelina Company España will harvest its camelina crops for the ITAKA project in June and ship the resulting plant oil to Neste Oil for conversion into jet fuel. The part of the crop that does not make it into the oil can be used as high protein animal feed, says Herreras.

While stakeholders in ITAKA are optimistic that the project will be able to address some of the challenges associated with the use of alternative fuels in commercial aviation, the march towards replacing fossil-based fuels in the industry is expected to be slow and gradual. "Today, for sure, the challenge is to get a large amount of sustainable feedstock," says Cabaré. "This is what we're aiming at in this project."

Cost remains a key issue with alternative fuels generally carrying a higher price tag than traditional kerosene. Calls for government help to bring these costs down continue to be made, says Kröger: "Some financial support mechanisms or incentives are likely to be needed to encourage the widespread use of these fuels."

She adds that it is "difficult to estimate" when more widescale use will become a reality. "Neste Oil's aim is to lead the way in producing and marketing sustainable, renewable aviation fuel, and we will increase our production capacity as demand increases."

Cabaré points out that by 2030 "we might have a better view of the market", but he is reluctant to put any specific timescale on when more widespread use of alternative fuels is likely to materialise. But despite this continuing uncertainty, "the production of sustainable biofuel is not something we can put aside", he adds.