Greener flights from greener fields - using aviation biofuel
Jet fuel from renewable sources holds the key to significantly reducing the environmental impact of aviation. EU-funded researchers have set out to boost Europe's production capacity, and are also developing a process that would leverage the growing of feedstock to rehabilitate land at risk of desertification.
© Elnur #272174260, source:stock.adobe.com 2020
To fully tap the potential of green jet fuel, a number of obstacles will have to be overcome. For example, large quantities of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are needed. The EU-funded BIO4A project is building capacity for industrial-scale production.
Not that Europe is lacking in capacity to produce biofuels, according to project coordinator David Chiaramonti of Florence-based R&D institution RE-CORD and of the Polytechnic of Turin. However, within the jet-fuel category, the installed capacity to produce SAF is currently limited in view of the decarbonisation needs, he explains.
The solution we are proposing ties in perfectly with the Sustainable Development Goals and with the European Green Deal, Chiaramonti says.
The partners will derive their fuel from waste lipids such as used cooking oil. However, they are also looking into ways of procuring the abundant feedstock needed to decarbonise aviation from oil crops cultivated without displacing the production of food or feed.
Cutting emissions ...
The BIO4A team have set themselves a target of at least 5 000 tonnes of biojet to be produced before the end of the project, in April 2022. This achievement will build on a milestone already reached: as of June 2020, BIO4A has converted an existing refinery in France, and the production of biofuel will begin soon, Chiaramonti notes.
The new biorefinery should, in due course, be able to turn out several hundred thousand tonnes of SAF annually, says Chiaramonti, adding that this production will meet the criteria of the EUs revised Renewable Energy Directive.
As part of its bid to advance the transition towards SAF, BIO4A is looking into the entire value chain, from the cultivation of oil crops to the delivery of biojet to airports.
While there are technological challenges to address, these are not the only obstacles to overcome. Price, for example, is another consideration: sustainable aviation fuel is more expensive than conventional products, although the BIO4A consortium is confident that ways to reduce the cost will be found as value chains mature and market shares grow.
The feedstock side offers the widest scope for savings and also provides opportunities for additional sustainability gains, Chiaramonti explains. BIO4A is cultivating selected varieties of the drought-resistant oil crop camelina in rotation with food or feed crops, using methods designed to help restore marginal land at risk of marginalisation or desertification.
The aim is to support the switch to more sustainable agriculture, Chiaramonti continues. The more marginal the land, the more chemicals and water are typically used. We are trying to counteract this phenomenon.
...and protecting fragile soils
The proposed approach involves enriching the soil with a mix of compost and biochar charcoal made by processing biomass. Along with feeding the soil and improving its ability to retain moisture, this approach offers another exciting benefit.
Biochar is recognised as one of the most promising methods to sequester and remove carbon from the atmosphere, Chiaramonti points out. It stays in the soil for hundreds of years, helping to preserve it for future generations.
While the enrichment process does involve some cost, this expense should be seen as an investment, the project coordinator says. It is one of several areas along the biojet value chain where targeted policy support could help to accelerate the transition, he points out, adding that BIO4A intends to produce recommendations for policy- and decision-makers along with its first harvest of homegrown aviation fuel.