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Feedback: The benefits of biofuels

A new generation of biofuels, which does not compete with food crops for land use, offers a potential solution to the airline industry's impact on climate change, says IATA's director of aviation and the environment Paul Steele

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr (Airline Business, April 2008) claims that aviation emissions cannot be tackled through biofuels because of the land required and the scale of the industry. Dr Parr is only partially right. Biofuels should not compete with food crops for land use. And the good news for Dr Parr is that there is a whole area of ­biofuels that have very real ­possibilities for a reduction in aviation emissions - these are the new generation biofuels, such as algae.

First generation biofuels are derived from crops such as rapeseed, corn, soybeans and sunflower seeds and are primarily used for ground transportation. They compete with food crops for agricultural land and are inefficient and non-sustainable sources of energy. Food shortages, deforestation and rising food prices make the case against these sources all the more compelling.

Paul Steele IATA 
 "Biofuels is a complex area and the debate is often too emotional and simplistic"
Paul Steele
Director aviation environment, IATA

The new generation of biofuels is generally derived from non-crop sources. They will be far more efficient because they use new biomass-to-fuel conversion technologies, allowing sources such as algae, halophytes, babassu, switchgrass and jatropha (see table) to be candidates for conversion.

Is Algae the Answer?

Take algae. These simple plants can be grown in polluted or salt water that would not normally be drinkable or usable for growing crops. They thrive off carbon dioxide, which makes them ideal for carbon sequestration. And they have the potential to provide the large volume of bio oil needed. Indeed, algae can produce up to 250 times more oil per hectare than first generation soybeans. And they do not compete for land with food crops. An area of land or water equivalent to the size of Belgium devoted to algae production could produce enough energy to fuel the entire global fleet of aircraft.

Can planes be flown safely on such biofuels? Virgin Atlantic's recent trial of a 20% biofuel mix on a flight from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol is a good start. The whole ­industry - manufacturers, airlines, ­engine makers and oil companies - is committed to finding ways to reduce emissions from aviation. Within a year we will also see Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines conduct trials using new generation biofuels to power aircraft. The transition to economically viable and environmentally progressive renewable fuels will take time and effort, but these are significant steps in the right direction.

But we are not addressing the impact of aviation just through the use of biofuels. The industry takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and we have an excellent track record of environmental improvement. Fuel efficiency improved 70% over the past 40 years. And we are forecasting a further 25% improvement by 2020 over 2005. We have developed a four-pillar strategy to mitigate aviation's climate change impacts - investing in technology flying aircraft better building and operating efficient infrastructure and positive economic instruments such as the funding of R&D. Research into ­biofuels is a key element of our vision for a carbon free future.

There are many hurdles to overcome but the industry has a strong tradition of technological progress. Cost is one hurdle. But with soaring oil prices (fuel will cost the industry well over $150 billion in 2008, more than 30% of ­operating costs), previously expensive biofuels are becoming more cost competitive. Performance is another. ­Requirements for jet fuel are stringent - fuel must not freeze at high altitudes and the fuel must have a high-energy content. Fuels such as ethanol that are appropriate for ground transportation are not suitable for aircraft. And that is why we are testing biofuels step by step. The third hurdle is to scale up the production of environmentally responsible fuel sources, such as algae, to ­support an industry of our size.

Biofuels is a complex area and the debate is often too emotional and simplistic. We must put hyperbole and politics aside and focus on solutions. There are plenty of opportunities to reduce carbon emissions without taking land away from food. I hope Dr Parr and others with similar concerns will take note and help us move the agenda forward.

To read Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr's Feedback on the use of biofuels in aviation, go to:

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