BIOMASS HUB

global bioenergy supply chain intelligence

Aviation Biofuels

What are aviation biofuels?

Aviation biofuels, or biojet, are fuels derived from biomass used in place of or blended with kerosene jet fuel to power aircraft.

Why aviation biofuels?

Unlike ground transportation and power generation, the airline industry has no viable alternatives to liquid petroleum fuels for the foreseeable future.  This means the industry is acutely vulnerable to increasing competition for tight oil supplies (see Peak Oil) and volatility in the price of oil.  Accordingly, civilian and military aviation fuel buyers are under increasing pressure to incorporate aviation biofuels into their fuel mix.  Developing a viable biojet supply chain to integrate biofuels in aviation would diversify fuel supplies across a range of non-food crop sources, decrease exposure to volatility in the market, and mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

How does the price of oil drive demand for aviation biofuels?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the era of cheap oil is over and that price volatility will persist as international oil markets tighten.  Dramatic oil price spikes precipitated by Hurricane Katrina and Middle East unrest in 2011 are evidence of this new reality. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), the industry trade organization for the leading US airlines, fuel expenses have historically ranged from 10 to 15% of U.S. passenger airline operating costs, but averaged more than 35% in the third quarter of 2008.  Jet fuel has traditionally been the airlines’ second-highest operating expense, exceeded only by labor costs.  Recent oil price increases have made jet fuel the single largest expense for some airlines (see Airline Industry Caught Between Rock and Hard Place).

Can aviation biofuels reduce carbon emissions?

Although only representing 2% of GHG emissions, the airline industry is committed to stabilizing emissions with carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and has set a target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050.  Biofuels are a key component of their strategy.  The airline industry’s contribution to global warming is potentially greater than other major GHG emission sources because aircraft release emissions at high altitudes (when nitrous oxide is emitted at high altitudes, for example, it has the potential to cause greater concentrations of ozone than when it is released at ground-level).  Carbon regulations, like those that have been proposed under the EU’s ETS Aviation Amendments, are expected to only have a marginal impact on the economics of aviation biofuels in the short term, assuming the Amendments survive legal challenges (see Battle Over Emissions and the Rise of Aviation Biofuels).  Long term, the cost of carbon is expected to double fossil fuel prices, helping to close the gap between the cost of aviation biofuels and kerosene jet fuel.  According to the IEA, business-as-usual projections for CO2 emissions from global aviation are estimated to increase 3.1% per year over the next 40 years, resulting in a 300% increase in emissions by 2050.

What criteria must aviation biofuels meet?

There are four criteria for aviation biofuels that must be met:

  • Safety/fuel quality
  • Deliver environmental benefit (e.g. GHG mitigation)
  • Supply reliability
  • Economic feasibility

What are the primary obstacles to aviation biofuels?

The international standards certifying body ASTM International announced its approval of the Bio-SPK Fuel Standard in June 2011, to be made official later in the year. The decision clears the way for commercial use of biojet (or “hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ)”).  The long-awaited certification removes one of the key obstacles to widespread commercialization of biofuels for aviation.

Despite certification, the complexity of the regulatory landscape makes it difficult to bank on specific fuel pathways or anticipate regulatory requirements. The EPA’s RFS2 and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard are vague as to the regulation of jet fuel pathways. Also, while the EU is committed to regulating the carbon emissions from inbound and outbound flights, it is unclear whether the U.S. government will implement legislation to regulate greenhouse gases any time soon. The complexity of these regulatory programs makes it difficult to attract sufficient financing to move forward on building wide scale production capacity.

In addition to a murky regulatory climate, the cost of aviation biofuels are currently about twice that for kerosene, the primary fuel used for powering aircraft.

Finally, feedstock unavailability, specifically for R&D purposes, also represents a major challenge to the commercialization of aviation biofuels.  Feedstocks used for HRJ (the cheapest conversion pathway that exists today for aviation biofuels) are not available in sufficient quantity to support a rapid expansion of production infrastructure (see Airline Industry Hangs Its Future on Biofuels).

Which feedstocks are the most promising for aviation biofuels?

Learning from other industries and mindful of public perception around biofuels, the aviation industry is looking to non-food feedstocks that can produce advanced biofuels that are 100% fungible (drop-in compatible) with existing fuel infrastructure as well as meet broader sustainability goals to green aviation (see Aviation Sector Lags on Sustainability but Biofuels Present Opportunity).  Since feedstock viability varies across geography and climate, the industry is looking to develop a portfolio of feedstocks.  Leading feedstocks include: camelina, jatropha, algae, halophites, and waste.

What’s wrong with first generation biofuels?

Aviation must look to advanced biofuels as some first-generation biofuels, such as food-based biodiesel and ethanol, are not suitable fuels for powering commercial aircraft.  Biodiesel freezes at high altitudes, for example, and ethanol lacks the required energy density for commercial aircraft.

How long until aviation biofuels are commercially available?

Aviation bioefuels are currently produced in limited quantities.  Major international carriers and the U.S. military have all carried out test flights using a range of feedstocks and broad industry consortiums have coalesced around developing supply chains. Commercial flights have begun to take off. Although supply agreements have been signed, capacity will be slow to develop.  It is difficult to predict when aviation biofuels will have a material impact on the aviation sector as many unknowns (e.g. the price of oil) come into play.  Even so, many experts contend that it will be at least 2020 before we see aviation biofuels making a significant dent (north of 15% market share).

What is the potential market opportunity?

Aviation accounts for 12% of the fuel consumed by the entire transportation sector, which is equivalent to roughly 1.5 to 1.7 billion barrels of kerosene jet fuel annually (about 70 billion gallons).  Analysts project that aviation biofuels will replace roughly 1% of kerosene by 2015, 25% by 2025, and 30% by 2030.  This represents a market value of US $2 billion, $56 billion, and $68 billion in delivered fuel respectively, assuming current kerosene prices.*

* Price does not account for future oil prices or savings associated with carbon credits.

Image: Flickr/Jun Seita

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