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While it is pretty common to see hybrid or electric cars around us, especially in cities, the day when flying on an electric commercial aircraft is still far away. There are great examples of successful electric aircraft, such as Solar Impulse, but those planes can only carry one or two people at most. So what are the real alternative fuels for aviation in the short term? Which ones have the potential to significantly decrease the emissions of greenhouse gases? One avenue that is being considered is the conversion of wastes into jet fuel, called biokerosene.

Aviation is looking to reduce CO2 emissions

Let’s step back for a moment. Over the last 30 years, the aircraft efficiency was improved two-fold, meaning that the CO2 emitted by a person flying today is half of the CO2 emitted for the same trip in 1985. There are very few industries that can claim such a high gain in efficiency. Despite this achievement, aviation sector emissions are still increasing due to constant growth in traffic. The increase in the number of passengers exceeds the decrease of individual emissions. To tackle this challenge, the aviation community, orchestrated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, is striving to find the best solutions to decrease aviation contribution to climate change. One of the solutions is biofuels.

Biofuel’s sustainability under scrutiny

Among the numerous available pathways to produce biofuels, waste based biofuels present many benefits in terms of sustainability. The first one is that they do not compete with food for land or water. Examples such as municipal solid waste (MSW) or waste cooking oil (WCO), just to name a few, are more a burden for the society than anything else. And their quantity is increasing as world population is on the rise. So turning them into valuable products offers a solution. In addition, waste based biofuels have a lower overall environmental footprint than fossil fuels. Here is the explanation with the example of WCO. The plant from which the oil is extracted is a carbon sink: it captures the CO2 from the atmosphere during its growth through photosynthesis. Then, when the biofuel burns, the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere, making it almost carbon neutral. The only reason why it is not fully carbon neutral is due to the CO2 emissions from WCO transportation, process and biofuel distribution activities.

Now, is there a way to verify these benefits in real life? The answer resides within the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. This independent organization ensures that certified biofuels are sustainable through a list of environmental, social and economic criteria. They have developed a voluntary certification standard that applies not only to biofuel, but also to companies along the supply chain. Among the many companies already certified, one of them called SkyNRG produces biokerosene.

Is biokerosene safe?

It has always been aviation’s first concern to transport people in the most secure manner. This means that biokerosene goes through the same certification process as standard jet fuel. A specification was created for biokerosene in which all technical characteristics are verified. As a consequence, there are currently only three approved pathways. The first one, Bio-Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (Bio-SPK) was approved in 2009 and allows the production of kerosene from a variety of feedstocks including MSW. The process is called “gasification” and is performed by companies such as Solena Fuels. In 2011, a second pathway called Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) was approved. It allows the production of kerosene from oil such as WCO. The last one, approved in 2014, allows the production of kerosene from a variety of sugars.

There is one limitation with the use of biokerosene: it currently cannot account for more than 50% of the fuel fed to the aircraft. But even with that limitation, they could decrease the aircraft CO2 emissions by up to 40%.

Maybe you already flew on an aircraft power with biofuels

Indeed airlines have embraced the arrival of biofuels by performing more than 1500 flights with biokerosene.
No later than March 21st, 2015, Hainan Airlines was the first Chinese airline to complete a commercial flight using biofuel made from waste cooking oil. Recovered from nearby restaurants, the oil was then processed into biokerosene (source:


British Airways is investing into an old oil refinery to transform it into a brand new facility to transform municipal solid waste into kerosene.

Oil factory

Virgin Atlantic has elected a similar process with their partner LanzaTech, but the inputs could be other types of waste such as nearby steel manufacturing or chemical industry wastes.

Looking forward

The main challenges for biokerosene are its cost and availability. Currently, biokerosene made from waste is not cost-competitive with traditional kerosene. It is however expected that, as technology matures, the cost will go down and more investments will flow to increase the supply. Also, it is likely that public incentives, as seen with the ethanol production, will accelerate the development of the sector. Another driver will be regulation. A growing number of countries are setting a price on carbon from fossil sources. This trend will increase the cost of standard kerosene and will help the business of biokerosene flourish.

So next time you seat in an airplane, you might just enjoy the pilot announcing “this flight is powered by waste cooking oil”.

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