Successful commercial biofuel flights operated by US carriers in late 2011 were underpinned by an understanding that price and supply chain infrastructure remain the big hurdles to creating a viable full-scale alternative aviation fuels industry in the USA. However, the US government has muscled up support in an attempt to kick-start the quest to replace kerosene.
While Alaska Airlines' 75-flight programme was more extensive, a single flight operated by United-Continental using a biofuel blend heralded the first US commercial flight with engines running partially on alternative fuels. Both airlines carried out their flights in November last year.
© Alaska Airlines
Alaska's flights with biofuel-powered engines have confirmed technical viability - but are investors sufficiently impressed?
United-Continental used the same Boeing 737-800 its Continental subsidiary operated in 2009 to perform a two-engine demonstration using biofuels derived from algae and jatropha. The single flight in November used a 40:60 algae-derived blend supplied by San Francisco-based company Solazyme.
Alaska's biofuel was a 20% blend made from used cooking oil. Its biofuel flight programme marked the first time a Bombardier Q400 turboprop was flown using a biofuel blend, with 64 Q400 flights comprising the bulk of the 75-flight trial. The other 11 flights were operated by Alaska Boeing 737-800s.
Vice-president of corporate and legal affairs Keith Loveless says that part of Alaska's logic behind operating the partially biofuel-powered Q400s on the popular Seattle-Portland route was to get the attention of policymakers, as well as rousing business interest in the carbon reduction benefits offered by biofuels.
Alaska's decision to settle on a 20% blend reflected supply and logistics challenges. "It kind of goes back to how difficult it was to find the biofuel," Loveless says. He describes a geographical patchwork in sourcing the fuel: the broker was based in the Netherlands and the supplier in Louisiana, while the fuel was refined in Texas. Moreover, the price Alaska paid for the fuel highlights the challenges carriers face in introducing alternative fuels on a large scale. Alaska paid nearly $17 per USgal for the cooking oil-derived biofuel, compared with $3.14 for the jet fuel, says Loveless. Operating the 75 flights with the 20% biofuel blend yielded a 134t reduction in carbon dioxide.
United-Continental has made clear it has no plans to pay a premium for biofuel. Cost parity with conventional fuel is a requirement, says managing director of global environmental affairs Jimmy Samartzis.
There are, however, mechanisms in place to make parity achievable, he says. For example, aviation biofuels are included within the Environmental Protection Agency's renewable fuel standards (RFS) programme. Under RFS a gallon of renewable fuel is assigned a renewable identification number, and when blended with gasoline becomes eligible to trade as an environmental credit.
United-Continental has signed letters of intent with five alternative fuel providers - Rentech, Gevo, Solena, Solazyme and Altair - with the intention of negotiating definitive supply chain agreements, and to "give them assurance there is an end user to buy their product", says Samartzis. For the agreements with Rentech, Solena and Altair, United was part of an industry coalition. Samartzis estimates the collective output from those agreements at 50 million USgal of jet fuel a year. The US Federal Aviation Administration has set a target of producing one billion USgal of aviation biofuel a year by 2018 - but that is a small fraction of the industry's fuel needs. On a consolidated basis United-Continental alone burned 4.1 billion USgal in 2011.
Samartzis concludes that the most significant roadblock to the biofuel industry achieving commercial scale is the capital needed for plants and production. Alaska's Loveless offers a similar verdict. "It really is a supply chain and cost issue at this point," he says, noting that alternative aviation fuel is technologically indistinguishable from jet fuel. However, Boeing director of biofuel strategy Darrin Morgan believes biofuel production could ramp up significantly this year, predicting millions of gallons in biofuel output. He also believes that while the price of biofuels will remain higher than traditional jet fuel, the cost of alternatives could reach "spitting distance of petroleum" in 2012.
Before ASTM International certificated fuels derived from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids in July 2011, it was tough to close the business case for large-scale biofuel production, says Morgan. Alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuels could play a big role in pushing up full-scale biofuel production, he adds, as existing ethanol infrastructure does not require a major retrofit for ATJ production. ASTM approval for ATJ fuels is expected within two years.
In December, the US government stepped up its commitment to creation of a genuine biofuels industry when it disclosed a Defense Logistics Agency contract to buy 450,000 USgal of drop-in biofuel. This was hailed as the largest biofuel purchase in US government history. Alaska's fuel supplier, Dynamic Fuels, is providing the fuel to the US Navy.
The FAA has awarded $7.7 million to eight companies to support aviation biofuel development and the approval of drop-in fuels from alcohols, sugars, biomass and pyrolysis oils. Under the contracts the companies are also tasked with examining how the alternative fuels affect engine sustainability.
In collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the FAA is - under a five-year agreement - assessing availability of different kinds of feedstocks that could be processed by biorefineries to produce jet fuels. The agreement includes joint development of a feedstock readiness level tool that tracks development and availability of the raw materials needed to produce aviation biofuels. The USDA and the Department of Energy are meanwhile working to aid construction of prototype, commercial-scale biorefineries. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack has indicated that committed resources could materialise this year.
Initially, the navy will commit to buying the biorefineries' products, and the USDA will lend assistance as production ramps up. "When they get to a point when their production exceeds the military's needs, we'll be able to work with the industry to use our resources to make sure that the product is competitively priced for a long enough period of time to actually create the industry," says Vilsack.
The alternative fuels industry stresses, however, that government support is imperative to overcoming the near-term challenges in pricing and supply logistics. Boeing, the USDA and trade group Airlines for America, in a report on their "Farm to Fly" initiative, concluded that the ethanol industry, the development of the internet and the global positioning system "may have failed were it not for initial public investments and support". The trio believe the same level of support is needed to commercialise aviation biofuels.
They argue that aviation biofuel producers have access to a 17-19 billion USgal a year commercial jet fuel market, as the largest 40 US airports account for 90% of jet fuel consumed in the USA's commercial aviation industry.
But in the short term the reality remains that biofuels need to be priced at a level customers are willing to pay. "That is a gap that needs to be closed," says Loveless.