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.
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.