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Bio-based jet fuels, innovation and the renewed efforts at COP21 to meet the industry’s emissions reduction targets towards 2050

By Mónica Soria Baledón, Ph.D. Candidate.
Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill University.
(December 9th 2015. Updated on January 9th 2016)

A few days ago while giving a lecture on aviation biofuels to a group of senior Chemistry students at McGill University, I was asked what the point is of producing alternative fuels that have no business case.  My answer was that we value mobility and where a full technological makeover is economically and technically unfeasible at the moment, which does not imply inaction, people are not willing to give up mobility for the sake of cutting down the sector’s carbon emissions to meet the international targets.  In this scenario, alternative fuels can significantly reduce the aviation’s carbon footprint without compromising mobility.

A key economic sector

In the global economy, the aviation industry is a key player to support and promote trade, job creation, tourism and investment, particularly in developing economies. With an annual growth of 5 percent, aviation is indeed the fastest expanding sector compared to other forms of transport and, according to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), it is responsible for two percent of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Although these emissions represent a small percentage of the fourteen percent global share accounted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for all transport modalities, emissions during flight can intensify up to four times the greenhouse effect compared to ground-level emissions due to differences in the atmospheric chemistry.

The technological lock-in

Currently the aviation sector is heavily reliant on liquid biofuels – also known as sustainable alternative jet fuels (SAF) – to achieve the international targets of carbon neutral growth by 2020 and to halving its emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.

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Figure 1. Schematic CO2 emissions reduction roadmap.
SOURCE: IATA (2013), Technology Roadmap (4th Ed.). Reproduced with permission of IATA.

 

There are several conversion pathways to produce SAF from biomass and non-biomass (i.e. municipal solid waste) feedstocks, from which only four of these have the ASTM D7566 certification for use in commercial aircrafts and engines. The ASTM-certified conversion pathways include Fisher-Tropsch, hydroprocessing of esters and fatty acids (HEFA), hydroprocessing of fermented sugars, and Fisher-Tropsch plus aromatics; the latter obtaining the ASTM approval less than a month ago.

However, certification under ASTM or an equivalent standard such as the UK DefStan 91-91, the Chinese No.3 Jet Fuel and others, does not imply commercial-scale readiness, as there is presently no regular production of SAF in the world.

The greatest obstacle of certified SAF is that they are more expensive to produce than fossil jet fuel. Furthermore, the ASTM D7566 standard requires SAF blending with petroleum-derived kerosene, which in turn increases the price gap between the alternative fuels and their fossil counterpart.

In its 2015 Sustainable Aviation Fuel Roadmap, the IATA estimates the cost of SAF between $2 to $7 USD per litre compared to $0.80 USD per litre of fossil jet fuel. Given the market disadvantage of SAF, most conversion pathways are currently optimized for other higher market valued co-products such as renewable – also known as green – diesel.

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Figure 2. Evolution of fossil jet fuel price since 2004.
SOURCE: Platts (2015), Digital Look, cited in IATA (2015), Sustainable Aviation Fuel Roadmap. Reproduced with permission of Platts.

 

Nevertheless, the harsh reality of numbers has not translated into general discouragement or call for inaction. On the contrary, the global aviation industry is more active in sustainable jet fuel development than ever.

Every cloud has a silver lining

On the technological forefront, innovative and promising conversion pathways are presently under ASTM certification. Amongst them, the IsoconversionTM (BIC) process developed by Applied Research Associates Inc. (ARA) and Chevron Lummus Global (CLG) transforms oils and fats into a full drop-in SAF, meaning that the biofuel does not require blending with fossil kerosene anymore to meet the ASTM specifications. This would allow the price of SAF to completely decouple from the price of fossil kerosene.

In October 2012, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) tested the novel biofuel in a Falcon 20 jet that took off in Ottawa, ON. According to the flight test results, the bio-based fuel led to emission reductions of up to a hundred percent for sulfur oxides, and to fifty percent for aerosols and particulate matter when compared to fossil jet fuel, while maintaining fuel efficiency and safety of operations.

SOURCE: ARA-CLG (2012), "ReadiJet® Alternative Fuel Takes Flight: the world's first jet aircraft powered by 100% unblended, renewable jet fuel that meets petroleum jet fuel specifications lands in Canada", at http://www.readifuels.com/alternative-fuels-news.html. Accessed on Nov.28th 2015. Reproduced with permission of ARA-CLG.

SOURCE: ARA-CLG (2012), “ReadiJet® Alternative Fuel Takes Flight: the world’s first jet aircraft powered by 100% unblended, renewable jet fuel that meets petroleum jet fuel specifications lands in Canada”, at http://www.readifuels.com/alternative-fuels-news.html. Accessed on Nov.28th 2015. Reproduced with permission of ARA-CLG.

But while certification of this and other technologies takes place and SAF become commercially available, the aviation industry still faces the challenge of rapidly increasing GHG emissions from demand growth, for which the role of governments in providing support during the climate negotiations in Paris was key.

Calling governments for urgent action at COP21 and the Paris Agreement

In an open letter to the governments sent prior to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held last December in Paris, the aviation industry reaffirmed the commitments to reduce its GHG emissions, claiming significant efficiency improvements through trillion-dollar investments in research and development (R&D), in air traffic management, and in ground operations at airports. Progress has also been made in the development of a single global carbon-trading scheme – known as market-based measures (MBM) - to be signed-off in September 2016 at the 39th United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly.

More importantly, the letter called governments for urgent actions to accelerate investment in R&D, improve intermodal transport planning and air traffic management, so as to set up adequate national and international policy frameworks and incentives to promote the creation and sustain of global markets for sustainable alternative jet fuels.

During COP21, several events took place to pursue engagement of country delegates in facilitating the achievement of the aviation industry’s targets towards 2050, and although the Paris Agreement did not contain any direct reference to international aviation, it set the framework to facilitate and add positive momentum to deliver the so needed climate action agreement at this year’s ICAO Assembly.

Furthermore, climate efforts have recently been framed within ICAO’s No Country Left Behind Initiative to improve safety and operational standards, launched on December 7th 2015 to commemorate the International Civil Aviation Day.

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