It wasn't many years ago that the idea of using biofuels for flight was dismissed out of hand as a utopian fantasy. The conventional wisdom said we’d never be able to produce enough aviation biofuel to make a difference, and even if we could it wouldn’t matter — biomass-sourced fuel would wreak havoc on the delicate internal workings of turbofan and piston engines with steep penalties in power and efficiency.
Fast-forward to 2012, and we’re on the verge of an enormous leap ahead as the industry ramps up aviation biofuel production to levels that will indeed have a palpable impact.
How did we come so far so fast, and where are we headed next?
While it’s true that our planet has plenty of oil remaining — vast reserves, in fact, locked deep below the surface to satisfy many decades of demand — the flip side of this narrative is that we’re using the oil we’re producing faster than at any time in our past. Increasingly, oil prices are being driven by the world’s insatiable energy demands, especially in emerging markets in Asia and South America, where consumers are growing accustomed to improved standards of living and craving ever more energy. Indeed, almost two-thirds of the growth in world oil demand in recent years has come from China and other growth economies.
If you’ve ever wondered what a prolonged oil price spike would mean for aviation, you’re not alone. Some of the brightest minds at Boeing and Airbus and inside the boardrooms at the world’s biggest airlines and the Pentagon have been asking that very question. The troubling answer everybody keeps circling back to doesn’t paint a reassuring picture of the future. Over the long term, say many energy experts, the price of a barrel of oil is headed in only one direction: way up. In the shorter term, price instability will stoke fear and uncertainty every time the price of a barrel of crude hits a dizzying new high. You probably don’t need to be told, but it’s the number one worry on the mind of most every airline CFO around the world.
What’s clear is that the days of tapping into reserves of free-flowing “easy” oil are growing shorter. Increasingly, we’re having to drill deeper and get more creative to extract the oil we know is there — much of it stubbornly locked in shale or oil sands. At the same time, world governments concerned about environmental catastrophe from the release of man-made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are intervening with hefty taxes that will only drive fuel prices higher. Connect the dots, and it’s obvious we’re on a path to ever-higher prices that, if continued unchecked, will eventually lead to the day when we can no longer afford to fill our tanks.