Aviation Industry Focuses on Sustainable Fuel Development

by | Jul 14, 2009

biofuelchartSeveral leading airline carriers have joined Boeing and members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), an airline-led industry working group launched in 2008 that focuses on the commercialization and availability of sustainable biofuels. New members are Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, TUIfly and Virgin Blue.

Current airline members include Air France, Air New Zealand, ANA (All Nippon Airways), Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Boeing and Honeywell’s UOP, a refining technology developer, are associate members.

User Group members work through the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), a global multi-stakeholder initiative. Efforts by User Group members and RSB stakeholders are focused on making renewable fuel sources available that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while cutting commercial aviation’s dependence on fossil fuels and potentially reduce the aviation sector’s exposure to fuel price volatility.

The aviation industry is also working on fuel conservation measures as a key way to reduce carbon emissions and costs.

In addition to previously announced research projects on algae and jatropha curcus, the User Group will also launch a sustainability assessment of halophytes, a class of plants that thrive in saltwater habitat, later this year. That effort will assess lifecycle CO2 emissions and socio-economic impacts, according to Boeing.

Group members must agree to the following sustainability criteria:

  • Jet fuel plant sources should be developed in a manner that is non-competitive with food and where biodiversity impacts are minimized; in addition, the cultivation of those plant sources should not jeopardize drinking water supplies.
  • Total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from plant growth, harvesting, processing and end-use should be significantly reduced compared to those associated with jet fuels from fossil sources.
  • In developing economies, development projects should include provisions or outcomes that improve socio-economic conditions for small-scale farmers who rely on agriculture to feed them and their families and that do not require the involuntary displacement of local populations.
  • High conservation value areas and native eco-systems should not be cleared and converted for jet fuel plant source development.

Boeing and a team across the aviation industry recently released a study that indicates that fuels derived from sustainable biomass sources meet aviation requirements.

According to the study, Evaluation of Bio-Derived Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (Bio-SPK), a series of laboratory, ground and flight tests conducted between 2006 and 2009 indicated the test fuels performed as well as or better than typical petroleum-based Jet A.

Boeing said the testing included several commercial airplane engine types using blends of up to 50 percent petroleum-based Jet A/Jet A-1 fuel and 50 percent sustainable biofuels.

The study also showed the Bio-SPK fuel blends used in the test flight program met or exceeded all technical parameters for commercial jet aviation fuel. Those standards include freezing point, flash point, fuel density and viscosity.

In addition, the tests revealed that using the Bio-SPK fuel blends had no adverse effects on the engines or their components, and that the fuels have greater energy content by mass than typical petroleum-derived jet fuel, which potentially could lower fuel consumption per mile, according to the study. Renewable jet fuels from bio-derived sources are being considered because of their ability to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, said Boeing.

The report is endorsed by Boeing, fuel technology developer UOP, a Honeywell company; engine-makers GE Aviation, CFM International, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell and airlines Air New Zealand (ANZ), Continental Airlines (CAL), Japan Airlines (JAL) and Virgin Atlantic.

Boeing said each of the test flights used a different blend of biofuel sources: The Air New Zealand flight used fuel derived from jatropha; the Continental flight used a blend of jatropha and algae-based fuels; and the JAL flight used a blend of jatropha, algae and camelina-based fuels.

Continental said the biofuel blend it tested performed as well as or better than traditional jet fuel, delivering an approximate 1.1 percent increase in fuel efficiency over traditional jet fuel in different stages of the demonstration flight. The airline carrier also estimated that the biofuel could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80 percent as compared to traditional jet fuel.

Continental claims the flight was the first biofuel demonstration flight by a commercial carrier in North America, the first sustainable biofuel demonstration flight by a commercial carrier using a two-engine aircraft, and the first biofuel demonstration flight by a commercial carrier using fuel partially derived from algae.

Japan Airlines recently became the first Asian carrier to fly using blended biofuel.

The next step is to prepare a comprehensive research report for submission to the ASTM International Aviation Fuel Committee later this year, said Boeing. The report will support efforts to gain approval to use Bio-SPK fuel at up to a 50 percent blend in support of industry goals to accelerate availability and use.

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