That’s predicted to happen fairly soon as biofuel science makes rapid strides. Rekoske’s team, for example, has been at the forefront of creating new types of renewable jet fuel from a type of alcohol called isobutanol, which can be produced from inedible biomass sources, such as corn stover, bagasse and wood residues. The FAA recently awarded a total of $7.7 million in contracts to eight companies — Honeywell UOP, LanzaTech, Virent Energy Systems, Velocys, Honeywell Aerospace, Metron Aviation, Futurepast Inc. and Life Cycle Associates — to help advance alternative commercial jet fuels, part of the Obama administration’s biofuels push.
Virgin Atlantic flew the very first biofuel test flight in 2008 between London and Amsterdam, using a 20 percent blend of biofuels in one engine of a 747 — a tentative first step, to be sure. Since then, several other airlines, including JAL, KLM, Lufthansa, Finnair and Continental, have flown scores of biofuel test flights, paving the way for the commercial approval of the 50:50 aviation biofuel blend by the ASTM last summer. Why 50:50? Researchers say this ratio is considered a conservative level while engineers study the effects of running biofuel through turbofan engines. So far, biofuel appears to behave much like petroleum-based jet fuel, with no additional wear on parts or gumming up of seals. That’s encouraging for proponents of even higher-ratio biofuel blends.
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson was an early backer of biofuel research because of his concerns about global warming. For years, aviation interests have noted that the industry’s total contribution to man-made greenhouse gases is a scant 2 percent. However, the predicted rise in global air traffic in the next 25 or so years will lead to a 50 percent increase in that figure — to 3 percent, or around 20 million cubic tons a year. Compared with what our cars and trucks spew, that isn’t a lot — but some scientists believe that carbon dioxide emitted at the flight levels is more harmful to the environment than what’s being created at ground level. This is one reason aviation emissions are included in the highly controversial European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a cap-and-trade program whereby operators of aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds will have to buy permits to offset their greenhouse emissions within Europe.
Development of more fuel-efficient jet engines will help appease regulators by keeping the industry’s carbon footprint in check, but without biofuels
the industry will almost certainly face steep ETS-related penalties in the years ahead while also being held hostage to oil price spikes. Whether it’s a concern about oil scarcity and skyrocketing prices or the threat of man-made global warming, the answer to our future energy needs appears to be the birth of an industry to support sustainable biofuels produced in mass quantities with stable costs. By no means will this transformation be easy, but with the full backing of industry, governments and the public — and with a little bit of good fortune — the future for aviation biofuels appears incredibly bright.