For owners of light, single-engine airplanes, relief could come in the form of battery power and electric motors, which would allow future generations of weekend fliers and flight students the joy of an hour or two of time aloft before the batteries drain and it’s time for a recharge. Without some kind of electric breakthrough, for everybody else, from owners of high-performance singles up through the turbine world, there really aren’t any realistic alternatives to liquid fuel. We’ll never see the day when an Airbus A380 is powered by lithium-ion batteries and sunlight, for example. In short, turbine-powered airplanes need kerosene or its liquid-hydrocarbon equivalent to keep flying.
Faced with the reality that aviation’s demand for energy sourced from liquid fuel cannot be reversed — and that governments will insist airlines abide by a carbon-neutral growth strategy or pay the price — a massive effort is now under way to encourage the formation of an entirely new industry based around production of huge volumes of aviation biofuels made from everything from micro algae and hearty plants and grasses to discarded animal fats and even the garbage you leave by the curb. The aviation industry is laying huge bets that fuel produced from biomass can one day replace 50 percent or more of the world’s jet fuel supply. When you stop to consider that the industry currently burns 70 billion gallons of jet-A each year — a figure that is projected to rise sharply in the decades ahead, by the way — the enormity of the task, and the consequences of failure, begin to sink in.
Fuel vs. Food
Global biofuel production has tripled in the last decade, but it still accounts for less than 3 percent of the world’s transportation fuel supply. Yet the challenge doesn’t lie in our ability to ramp up biofuel production. Rather, the major difficulty will involve creating a sustainable model for the future that doesn’t impact the global food supply. Experts say so-called second-generation biofuels, which use nonfood crop sources and low-water irrigation, are the answer. These feedstocks can be grown on nonfarm land and in arid conditions — even in deserts, some researchers say.
When we think about “biofuels,” the vision that is likely to pop into our heads is of vast green fields being combed over by industrial combines that initiate the cycle of sending freshly plucked greenery off to fuel production facilities for processing. That’s not how it will happen, say the scientists who insist the biomass we collect for aviation fuel must not compete with food supplies. Will it really be possible to furnish the world with billions of gallons of aviation biofuel without driving up food prices in the process? Surprisingly, researchers say yes. In fact, they insist, it’s the only way the aviation biofuel model can exist and flourish over the long term.
“We don’t yet fully understand how much total land will be needed to meet aviation’s future fuel needs, but we’re incredibly positive about the science being pioneered by those at the vanguard of this effort,” said Darren McFadden, director of sustainable fuel strategies at Boeing. “The research is showing us, for example, that we can grow biomass on arid desert lands using seawater for irrigation. That’s really exciting.”