Mining the Desert for Jet Fuel: a Look into the Qatar Biofuels-Water Nexus
Although Qater Airways announced an initiative with Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) this month to carry out engineering and economic analysis as well as look into ways to produce and supply sustainable aviation biofuels, the country may be looking abroad for a long-term solution. The move highlights the potential dangers surrounding biofuels and uncertainty about the connection between water and energy.
The airline and its partners have agreed to establish the “Qatar Advanced Biofuel Platform” (QABP), which will lead activities primarily in the area of advanced biofuel projects. Qatar Airways is the latest major airline to throw their hat in the biofuel ring. It is a peculiar move coming from a country with virtually no agricultural base to speak of.
Qatar is a desert country with almost no rainfall and its agricultural industry is virtually nonexistent. The country relies on substantial desalinization operations for fresh water, which it gives away free to Qataris. It is also awash in natural gas, the world’s leading producer of LNG, and has successfully tested the world’s first commercial flight powered by a Gas-to-Liquid (GLT) blend. All of this makes the biofuel play a little strange.
In a press release on the Qatar Airways website, the airline states that QABP will take a portfolio approach to the development of advanced biofuels across feedstocks, technologies, and geographies in order to meet their short, medium, and long term goals. Qatar is keeping quiet about which specific feedstocks the airline will pursue in exploring biofuel solutions. The initiative grew out of a sustainable Biomass-to-Liquid (BTL) jet fuel feasibility study that Qatar Airways and QSTP carried out with US-partner Verno Systems Inc., which suggests the QABP could purse an aggressive algae or waste-to-energy strategy. Biofuels Digest spoke with Verno Systems about the project, but the firm also declined to comment about specific feedstocks.
Given the potential for Qatari GLT fuel products, the biofuel move speaks volumes about GLT’s costs, peak oil, or the commercial viability of biofuels, or potentially all three. What is clear is that Qatar Airline’s biofuels play is not motivated by carbon neutrality, despite statements from the airline suggesting otherwise.
According to Qatar Airlines CEO, Al Baker:
Qatar Airways already has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the industry due to its investment of billions of US dollars in a state-of-the art aircraft fleet. By entering into the production and supply of bio jet fuels, we will be able to get closer and closer to the ‘much talked about’ carbon neutral growth.
Fred Pearce of the Guardian’s Greenwash challenges this assertion:
Qataris have the highest carbon footprint on the planet. The country’s per-capita emissions from burning fossil fuels are way ahead of any other nation, and almost three times those of everybody’s poster bad boy, the US. This is all the more extraordinary since Qatar’s electricity is mostly generated from burning natural gas, which has half the emissions of coal. Those emissions have also risen almost fourfold since 1990. But, thanks to the vagaries of the Kyoto Protocol, the country is not penalised for this. Qatar is by some measures the second richest country in the world, but for the purposes of climate law, it is classified as a developing nation. And so it has no emissions targets.
Adding more drama to the QABP foray, Qater’s government has offered the Kenyan government aid to build a deep-water port in exchange for 40,000 hectares of land to grow food (or biofuels feedstocks?). Whether for food or biofuel feedstocks, the development would place increased demand on Kenya’s water supplies at a time when the country is strapped by a prolonged drought. Biofuels are good in theory, but the execution of their commercialization must account for other resource scarcities.
More from Biomass Hub:
- International Air Transport Authority Demands More Investment in Aviation Biofuels | BIOMASS INTEL
- Aviation Biofuels: Caught Between a Rock and Hard Place | CleanTechies Blog - CleanTechies.com
- Kenya, Brazil Ink Agreement to Boost Biofuel Production | BIOMASS INTEL