Developing second-generation biofuels for commercial flights

Developing second-generation biofuels for commercial flights

Airbus and Honeywell are working with others to develop biofuels that could satisfy nearly a third of global demand from commercial aircraft by 2030 without affecting food supplies

Airbus, JetBlue Airways and International Aero Engines will work with two Honeywell companies – UOP and Honeywell Aerospace – to investigate the viability of harvesting biofuel from second-generation bio-feedstocks. The intention is to develop and test renewable-energy technologies to convert such bio-feedstocks into commercial aviation fuel.

To maximise sustainability, the project will focus on second-generation feedstocks, such as algae, that do not compete for food or water resources. Such non-food-crop biomass fuels can provide a better fuel-to-emissions life cycle than current kerosene products.

“Over the last 40 years, aviation has reduced fuel burn per aircraft – and therefore carbon dioxide emissions – by 70%, but more needs to be done,” says Sebastien Remy, head of alternative fuels research programmes for Airbus. “Millions of barrels of kerosene are used each day for aircraft fuel, and worldwide demand is growing. To replace a significant portion of that jet fuel with 'bio-jet', we need to find something that has much greater yield than the current biomass sources available. Airbus believes that second-generation bio-jet could provide up to 30% of all commercial aviation jet fuel by 2030.”

Biofuels have tremendous potential to meet the rapidly growing global demands for aviation fuel, while also offering a means to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Jennifer Holmgren, Honeywell UOP’s director for renewable energy and chemical business. “This partnership brings together a range of aviation and process technology expertise to study and verify the best path toward sustainable use of biofuels in aviation,” she says.

Honeywell UOP has already developed process technologies to convert natural oils and greases into military jet fuel. This advanced technology produces ‘green’ jet fuel compatible with traditional kerosene-based jet fuel systems. As it meets all the performance specifications for flight, it is also a viable option for the production of commercial jet fuel.

Honeywell Aerospace develops engine technologies for commercial aircraft, setting standards in low emissions and achieving high fuel efficiency. “Honeywell is working alongside key customers to find innovative solutions to meet passenger and operator demands for higher standards in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Greg Albert, Honeywell Aerospace's vice-president for Airbus programmes. “We believe this joint effort, along with Honeywell’s advanced technology solutions in air traffic management, have the potential to significantly decrease pollutants.”

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Boosting airline fuel efficiency

Airlines could reduce emissions in several ways. The most obvious is to accelerate investment in more efficient aircraft and engines, and optimise aircraft operations. Current aircraft could be improved by installing more efficient engines and improving wing drag for example. But in the longer term, airlines will require more efficient technologies and alternative fuels.

Aircraft engine emissions are directly related to fuel burn. Each kilogram of fuel saved reduces carbon dioxide(CO2) emissions by 3.16 kg.  So the key for airlines to minimise their environmental impact is to use fuel more efficiently.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is working with industry partners worldwide to reduce the industry's fuel requirements with a target of a 25% reduction by 2022 and ‘zero emission’ planes within 50 years. IATA claims new aircraft are already 70% more fuel efficient than 40 years ago and 20% better than 10 years ago. Modern aircraft achieve fuel efficiencies of 3.5 litres per 100 passenger km. The Airbus A380 and Boeing B787 are aiming for 3 litres per 100 passenger km.

Further reductions require a combination of actions. IATA is already working with air navigation service providers, air traffic controllers, airlines and other key stakeholders to reduce flight times – and thus fuel consumption – through better airspace design, procedures and management. If successful, this initiative could significantly reduce environmental emissions.

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IATA and fuel efficiency:


Aviation emissions to be covered by EU Emissions Trading Scheme

While total EU greenhouse gas emissions fell by 3% from 1990 to 2002, emissions from international aviation increased by almost 70%. There has been significant improvement in aircraft technology and operational efficiency but not been enough to neutralise the effect of increased traffic, and the growth in emissions is likely to continue. On 20 December 2006, the Commission proposed a two-step process to include aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). From the start of 2011, emissions from all domestic and international flights between EU airports would be covered. One year later, this would be expanded to cover emissions from all international flights – from or to anywhere in the world – that arrive at or depart from an EU airport. The principle of inclusion in the ETS has now been approved by both the European Parliament and Council, but starting on 1 January 2012 to cover all domestic and international flights arriving or departing from an EU airport.

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Aviation and climate change (Commission website):