The aviation biofuel industry, for practical argument, is only about six months old. Last July, for the first time ever, the aviation industry approved biofuels for everyday use in turbine airplanes, testing and certifying a 50:50 blend of conventional jet fuel mixed with feedstock-derived biofuel.
In August, President Barack Obama announced a $510 million incentive plan to speed aviation biofuel production by building new refineries or converting existing ones. Early flight trials have shown great promise for this new “drop-in” fuel source, as several airlines have begun using the approved blended biofuels on commercial flights with results that demonstrate no reduction in engine power or efficiency compared with using conventional jet fuel. Safety is unaffected as well.
Produced from plants with lyrical-sounding names like jatropha and camelina, as well as other feedstocks including algae and salt-tolerant halophytes, these drop-in fuels hold the promise of ensuring aviation’s long-term viability and, many believe, are a steppingstone to new generations of biofuels that eventually could completely replace petroleum-based jet-A, and possibly even 100LL aviation gasoline.
While most biofuel research has been focused on developing alternatives to jet-A, there has also been a push to create biofuel-based avgas. Swift Enterprises, which operates out of Purdue University’s research park in Lafayette, Indiana, has developed the 100SF synthetic hydrocarbon fuel alternative to 100LL (aviation-specific low-lead gasoline). The 100SF fuel is produced from biomass, which is then chemically reacted to produce full hydrocarbons. According to Swift Enterprises, commercial production of the 100SF fuel could begin soon. Test flights of the fuel have taken place in a Beechcraft Bonanza G36 as well as a Van’s Aircraft RV-3 and RV-4.
Assuming we can indeed produce billions of gallons of this vital combustible nectar without wiping out entire rainforests or invading the farmland we’ll desperately need for future food production, half the battle will be won. The other half of the challenge, as you might have guessed, involves brining down the price of biofuel until it falls in line with what we pay at the pump for conventional jet fuel. That will be a daunting challenge indeed. We need look no further than the ethanol industry for a cautionary tale of how we might fail in this regard.
Ethanol was supposed to help us kick our oil habit while putting more money in farmers’ pockets and ushering in a new era of guilt-free motoring. Instead, the price of corn has gone up while government subsidies have lined the pockets of agribusiness giants. For more than 30 years, the federal government has offered tax credits and imposed a tariff to stimulate U.S. production of ethanol, nearly all of it from corn. The goal: to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. Now, Congress is pushing to eliminate billions of dollars in subsidies for the ethanol industry, sending a strong message that the era of big taxpayer support is ending. Few outside the corn-growing industry are lamenting the subsidies’ potential demise.