Qantas hopes algae will play a part in its sustainable fuel strategy

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Algae down under

Australia's Qantas Airways hopes algae will play a part in its strategy to source as much as 5% of its jet fuel from sustainable sources by 2016.

To this end, the carrier this year signed an agreement with California-based renewable energy company Solazyme to develop a business case for introducing algae-based aviation fuel technology to Australia.

In the 12-month study, the two companies will examine the possibility of using a locally grown biomass source - most likely sugar cane - as a feedstock to produce Solazyme's microalgae-derived Solajet aviation fuel in Australia.

"It's about proving the validity of using [Solazyme's] technology in Australia to commercialise jet fuel based on their renewable oil production process," says Qantas chief risk officer Rob Kella.

The microalgae used by Solazyme to produce Solajet is grown in the dark in fermenters by consuming sugars derived from plants. Solazyme says this process enables it to "efficiently scale and accelerate microalgae's natural oil production time to just a few days and at commercial levels".

Kella adds: "Our intention is to look at this as a serious source for aviation fuel going forward."

Part of the 12-month study will focus on how cost-effectively the fuel can be produced. "Initial estimates from Solazyme show the price to be very competitive," says Kella, adding that the business case is being built on a comparison with the current jet kerosene price.

"We would love to buy it if the price is commercially attractive, assuming the fuel is certificated," he adds.

"It is effectively about creating new businesses that don't exist currently. We've got to get others on board and that means showing that we, as a significant user of fuel, will purchase it."

Kella's perception of algae's potential to eventually replace kerosene has become more positive in recent years. "I'm very optimistic," he says. "I've been in this game for five years and when I started, I was pretty sceptical. It seemed like there was a lot still to be done. But from what we've seen from other carriers that have tested blended products in flights, the results have been extremely encouraging."