While large-scale supply of aviation biofuels still seems far off, with only two methods to commercially produce alternative fuels from biomass certified so far, progress is encouraging. One key issue is the sustainability of biofuels; e.g. how sustainable is the “feedstock” that is used to actually produce the biofuel. For instance, first-generation biofuels frequently used corn and sugar cane as their primary biomass, with potential impact on the food supply. Studies found that emissions reductions of first-generation approaches were much lower than originally anticipated because of the inefficiencies inherent to those processes. Newer approaches include the use of hardy plant species that thrive in poor environments like deserts, or can be easily harvested on a rotational basis with regular crops on existing farmland, significantly reducing the competition for arable land. Also of interest are bio-engineered algae that can be cultivated on much smaller footprints and a custom microbe that efficiently converts large CO2 emissions from steel plants into biofuel. The best news: all these efforts are beginning to show tangible outcomes.
In early 2012, Lufthansa flew one of its 747-400s from Frankfurt to Washington D.C. using 40 tons of a biofuel blend. For context, a new Airbus A321, which Lufthansa deployed into daily passenger service using the same biofuel blend as part of a 6-month test, reduced CO2 emissions by 50%, or roughly 1,400 tons.
There is tangible evidence that supply chain challenges are being addressed. One example is the long-term deal between Lufthansa and Australian-based Algae.Tec to produce algae that can be converted into aviation kerosene and conventional diesel fuels. Another example is a biofuel deal by Primus Green Energy in New Jersey which could result in a major U.S. airline taking more than 20 million gallons a year of jet fuel made from natural gas.
We’re also excited about Pratt & Whitney Canada’s alternative fuel initiative in partnership with Bombardier, resulting in the first biofuel-powered flight in Canada in April of 2012.