biofuel production

Biofuels for Airplanes: New Step In Green Technology




As many countries around the globe are making an effort to wean themselves off of oil dependence, the aviation industry is also in the midst of looking for alternative ways to power airplanes. While this may sound like an unrealistic scenario given the sheer amount of fuel an airplane consumes even during a short flight, steps are actually being made to integrate biofuels into global aviation. That is right, biofuels – Jatropha curcas, a native plant of the tropics in Mexico and Central America, grows about 20 ft tall and can power a Boeing 777 jet on an 11-hour flight from Mexico City to Madrid!

In August 2011, an Aeromexico plane made history by being the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight powered in part by biofuel. A blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and refined Jatropha curcas seed oil was used to power the plane. While this was a critical first step toward freeing the aviation industry from its dependence on oil, there are a number of issues that still need to be resolved before biofuels can be a commonplace fuel for the industry.



AVIATION INDUSTRY AND OIL

As one might imagine airplanes cause a lot of pollution because they consume a lot of fuel to operate. Annually, the global aviation industry is responsible for 2 % of the world’s total CO2 emissions. In 2010, the industry released 649 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. While the aviation industry is committed to taking on responsibility for the pollution it causes, alternative sources requires major financial investments, and this gets in the way of turning immediate profits, which for any commercial enterprise comes first.

Because of the global economic downturn, many airlines suffered heavy losses as a result of reduced consumer demand for travel, and have been less willing to take risks and invest into biofuels. The airlines’ financial troubles have been exacerbated by the rising costs of fuel, directly tied to the rising costs of oil. While many companies have tried to cope by reducing cost structure, switching to more energy-efficient planes, streamlining fleets and stripping their excess weight, profits for many remain razor thin.



HURDLES THAT NEED TO BE OVERCOME

Major issues standing in the way of integrating biofuels into the aviation industry are that raw materials or feedstocks out of which biofuel is made are limited in quantity and sometimes too costly. Moreover, currently many biofuels are harvested on arable land, taking away valuable space for harvesting crops used for human consumption and animal feedstock, which drives up food prices and causes a lot of backlash. Other plants such as agave and jatropha are currently being researched as alternative sources of biofuel that can grow on none-arable land. Additionally, issues with land availability and land reform in countries like Mexico, which is one of the top producers of biofuels need to be resolved before the idea of biofuels for aviation can be viable.

PROJECTED GOALS

Despite all the hurdles facing the biofuel and aviation industries, Mexico is still determined to be the leader in producing biofuels for airplanes. Airports and Auxiliary Services (ASA), the Mexican government agency that oversees the biofuel flights and provides almost 100% of the jet fuel in Mexico, plans to commercialize and distribute biofuels globally. The projected goal by 2015 is to have 1% of all jet fuel in Mexico be biofuel, and by 2020: 15%. This is an highly ambitious goal as 1 % is actually equal to more than 40 million liters (10.6 million gallons)

However, for biofuel to take its place as a standard jet fuel supplement used throughout the aviation industry will take a lot more effort, investment and government support. Until biofuels can prove themselves to provide a more cost – effective fuel alternative than oil and comply with international regulations, most aviation companies are not likely to jump the gun and switch from the polluting, but tried and proven fuel derived from oil.

Global Government Support for Developing and Sustaining Biofuel Production

Biofuels are products that can be processed into liquid fuels for either transport or heating purposes. Bioethanol is produced from agricultural products including starchy and cereal crops such as sugarcane, corn, beets, wheat, and sorghum.

Biodiesel is made from oil- or tree-seeds such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, palm, coconut or jatropha. World biofuel production is expected to quadruple to over 120,000 ML by 2020, accounting for about 6 percent and 3 percent of world motor petroleum use and total road energy use, respectively. This rapid growth and expansion in the biofuel industry is happening as a result of strong support and incentives from many governments around the globe. Some of the most effective and common of these government policies as well as future policy recommendations are discussed below.

Government support for biofuels

While biofuel technology has been in existence since the early 70′s, it is only in the last decade that countries have started to perceive biofuels as a viable alternative to oil, and have therefore begun investing in to biofuel research and increasing their production of biofuels with unprecedented speed. The key elements driving this new development are biofuels’ reduced carbon emissions compared to conventional fuels, their positive impacts on rural development, and the potential for countries to diversify energy sources, and enhance energy security. As a result of these perceived economic, environmental and social benefits, strong long-term government intervention is a feature in the two top biofuel-producing countries: the United States and Brazil, as well as the EU, China, and other countries. Governments aid biofuel ventures to overcome cost and scale disadvantages. Government support also helps biofuel companies weather the inherent volatility in profits.

One of the most commonly practiced policy interventions is a requirement to blend biofuel with its fossil fuel counterpart to provide a guaranteed market for biofuels. The specifics of this requirement vary around the globe in the extent to which this requirement is mandatory, whether a nationwide or regional strategy is used, length of the phase-in period, the volume or blend percentage mandated, etc.

Countries also rely on tax credits, subsidies, and preferential taxes to overcome the higher cost of biofuel production relative to gasoline and diesel, as well as to encourage consumers to buy biofuel-containing gasoline or diesel. For example, the US government provides a $.51 per gallon tax refund for blenders of ethanol and $1.00 per gallon for biodiesel from vegetable oils and animal fat ($.50 for recycled cooking oil or animal fat). Europe offers an 18.7-euro per acre energy premium for production of biofuel feed-stocks. Similarly, India’s government offers sugar mills, who are willing to build ethanol production facilities, sizable subsidized loans for 40 percent of project costs. Brazil encourages consumption by imposing a lower sales tax for hydrous ethanol (containing water) and E25 (25 percent ethanol) than for gasoline. Moreover, Brazil is the only country promoting biofuel use beyond minimal blending levels by allowing consumers to choose it as a fuel substitute. The Brazilian Government has promoted the availability of ethanol at almost every gasoline station and the manufacture of flexible fuel cars (capable of using pure gasoline, E25, or pure hydrous alcohol).

Many governments are also using import restrictions to promote the emerging biofuel industry. Effective tariffs range from 9 percent in Canada (for ethanol imports from Brazil, 0 tariff for renewable fuels from the U.S.) to about 45 percent for undenatured and 24 percent for denatured ethanol in the EU. The EU waives import duties and tariffs for many developing countries (not including Brazil). The U.S. tariff on ethanol is currently about 25 percent when the 2.5-percent tariff is combined with the $.54 per gallon duty.

Global concerns regarding biofuel production

While the current policies in place are helping to create a sustainable global market for biofuels, there are still many issues that governments need to address in order for the global community to reap the full economic, environmental and social benefits of biofuels. As more farms and forests around the globe are utilized for biofuels production, careful consideration of feedstock production practices and location of biomass conversion plants will be required to avoid devastating impacts on existing food, feed, and fiber markets, and the quality of natural resources upon which all of us depend on for clean air and water. Countries will need to invest into research and development of new technologies and alternative processes to improve economic and conversion efficiencies for biofuels production, improve current biofuel delivery programs and create trade policies and agreements that would allow developing countries to enter and compete in the biofuel global market.