“Probably the best thing for the aviation biofuel industry was the backlash against ethanol,” McFadden said. “It made the aviation industry take a step away from the subsidies model that hasn’t worked and focus on technology instead.”
Boeing, Airbus and 25 airlines have signed a sustainability pledge through the Sustainable Aviation Fuel User Group (safug.com) that promises the aviation industry will develop biofuels that perform equal to or better than petroleum-based fuels, with a carbon-neutral life cycle from production through end use.
So how much does a gallon of aviation biofuel cost? That’s a hard question to answer, but we know it’s currently far more than jet-A’s cost. The Navy recently signed deals to buy 450,000 gallons of biofuel as part of an aim of obtaining half of its fuel from alternative sources by 2020. But at approximately $15 per gallon — nearly four times the price of traditional jet fuel — the new fuels aren’t cheap. The Navy’s $12 million fuel purchase will be used in the Pacific near Hawaii this summer, where F/A-18s powered by fuels fermented from algae will launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier. A destroyer and cruiser, meanwhile, will join the carrier on a voyage across the Pacific using fuel made from waste fats and greases. (The carrier itself runs on nuclear power.) It will be the first demonstration of the so-called “Great Green Fleet” — an entire aircraft-carrier strike group running on alternative energy sources.
Two companies are splitting the Navy’s biofuel order. Dynamic Fuels, half-owned by agribusiness giant Tyson Foods, converts fats and waste greases into biofuels. The other firm, Solazyme, uses algae as a means of fermenting everything from plant matter to municipal waste into fuel. Both are considered leaders in the next-generation biofuel industry. Dynamic Fuels is one of the first companies in the field to bring a commercial-scale refinery online, while Solazyme has already delivered 150,000 gallons of its fuels to the Navy. This new purchase, at first, will cost $26 per gallon, or $1,092 per barrel. The biofuel will then be blended with an equal amount of conventional fuel, producing 900,000 gallons — for a real price of about $15 per gallon for the 50:50 blend. The Navy currently pays less than $4 a gallon for its JP-5 jet fuel, so the price difference is significant. Still, it’s roughly half of what was paid in 2009 by the Navy for an earlier biofuel trial.
Researchers estimate that 85 percent of biofuel production costs are related to the raw materials — namely, biomass that isn’t yet being produced in high enough quantities. But that’s about to change. In the next two to three years, large biofuel production plants will be built as producers lease the land they will need to grow biomass. Eventually, the hope is that, as production of conventional jet fuel grows more costly and biofuel production increases, the cost lines will intersect and a gallon of biofuel could actually cost less than a corresponding gallon of jet-A.
“Biofuel costs will come down as production increases and these new fuels become a global commodity,” said Jim Rekoske, vice president for renewable energy at Honeywell UOP, which licenses green fuel technologies.