MONTREAL – The very first commercial flight boosted by biofuel occurred only four years ago, when a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet hopped from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol aided by fuel derived from Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts.
Since then, airlines, aircraft manufacturers and engine-makers around the world have gotten into the act, announcing with great fanfare the odd test or revenue flight â€œpowered by clean biofuels.â€�
One of the latest efforts was by Porter Airlines, which operated Canadaâ€™s first biofuel-assisted revenue flight in April, a skip from Toronto to Ottawa on a Bombardier Q400 70-seat turboprop.
But to put things in perspective, the Virgin Atlantic flight on a B747 was powered by a blend that included 20-per-cent biofuel â€“ in only one of its four engines. The rest was traditionAl kerosene.
Same with the Porter Airlines Dash-8 flight, which flew on a 50/50 blend (camelina sativa oil and jet fuel, in its case) in one of its two engines.
These flights generate publicity but are exceedingly rare exceptions among the many thousands of regular carbon-burning flights each day worldwide.
So basically, the aviation industry is powered 100 per cent by ozone-depleting fossil fuel â€“ jet A1 fuel. And an awful lot of it. The global airline industry burns more than 68 billion U.S. gallons, or about 260 billion litres, of oil each year, according to Montrealâ€™s airline lobby, the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Steve Lott of Airlines for America, which represents U.S. airlines, noted that the figure (itâ€™s 18 billion gallons, or about 72 billion litres, of fuel annually for U.S. airlines alone) does not include the military or general aviation â€“ two major users.
It would be churlish â€“ and wrong â€“ to dismiss or denigrate efforts to push the industry toward cleaner fodder, industry insiders and critics agree.
For one thing, itâ€™s in airlinesâ€™ self-interest to cut fuel costs, their biggest single expense at 30 per cent or more of total operating costs.
Aircraft fuel is already expensive and will only get more so, is the consensus, so nowâ€™s the time to start working on bringing down the price of biofuels, which are themselves five to 10 times more expensive than jet fuel, said Sylvain Cofsky, executive director of Montrealâ€™s Green Aviation Research Development Network (GARDN), which helped finance the Porter flight.
He and about a dozen people interviewed said the bet on biofuel will be won only when it can be produced in huge quantities economically, inexhaustibly and sustainably.
So the road to cleaner aviation will be long and meandering, and these demo flights represent initial baby steps, if that. Absent is the hype of the last decade or two that specific fuels â€“ ethanol, for instance â€“ is the magic bullet.
Stephen Colavincenzo, who heads biofuel projects for Bombardier Inc., a partner in the Porter flight, said that the industry has drawn the appropriate conclusions from the misguided rush to corn or sugarcane and other feedstocks that displaced much-needed food crops.
â€œThe camelina sativa and carinata brassica we used are oil seed crops and are considered non-food products,â€� Colavincenzo said.
â€œAnd most important, they can be grown on marginal land that canâ€™t sustain wheat or cereal grain â€“ and need very little water or fertilizer.â€�
In addition, camelina and carinata can also be grown in wheat fields in fallow years, when farmers donâ€™t plant wheat or other crops to replenish the soil.
â€œSo in those rotation years, it could be an added source of revenue for farmers.â€�
But Colavincenzo is clear: â€œEveryone understands that these crops (including jatropha in tropical climates) are a bridge to the future. With their yield, youâ€™re never going to get to, say, 30 per cent biofuel for jet aircraft on a global basis.â€�
That future, the current betting is, might well be algae.
As an expert in the molecular biology and physiology of algae at the National Research Council of Canadaâ€™s Institute for Marine Biosciences in Halifax, Dr. Pat McGinn is one of algaeâ€™s leading proponents worldwide.
â€œYou donâ€™t need arable or fertile soil â€“ the only requirement you need is that the ground be flatâ€� for vast oval algae ponds that, from the air, look like giant racetracks.
He agreed with Colavincenzo that the yield from algae could be 50 to 200 times that of camelina, for instance.
â€œThey can double their biomass once or twice per day,â€� McGinn said. â€œThey have no roots or leaves.â€�
Algal-oil can be harvested from fresh water or sea water, he noted, even waste water, which could help clean up the toxic effluent from pig farms and other pollutant sources, including municipal waste water.
But for now, algal oil still faces the same barriers as any feedstock to becoming a major fuel source for aviation â€“ a meaningful production scale.
McGinn readily agrees that algae is very promising, but that production has been achieved only in small doses so far.
Porter Airlines founder and CEO Robert Deluce said that â€œthe next step is to take that experiment and figure out how to create fuels on a large scale so that cost is competitive.â€�
Dan Breitman, vice-president of engine development programs for Pratt Whitney Canada, said that his job is to make sure that alternative fuels used in his engines are safe, efficient and sustainable.
â€œSo we have to partner with the people who produce biofuels in a sense, because they canâ€™t assess the fuel without the people who burn it.â€�
Breitman said that alternative sources of fuel are key. â€œBut probably the biggest thing that you can do (as aircraft- and engine-makers) is to burn less of it.â€�
Pratt Whitneyâ€™s GTF engine developed for Bombardierâ€™s upcoming airliner, the CSeries, is designed just for that purpose â€“ to cut the planeâ€™s fuel burn by 20 per cent, and hence emissions by at least that much.
Colavincenzo noted that biofuels emit as much carbon dioxide as other fuels â€“ â€œthatâ€™s just chemistry, thereâ€™s nothing you can about that.â€� The reduction comes over the life cycle of the crop that produces energy.
â€œCrops capture CO2 out of the air, and that goes into creating the biofuel â€“ which creates jet fuel, which creates CO2. But that CO2 loops back around into the next crop and back into the ground. Thatâ€™s life cycle.â€�
Dr. Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace U.K., said that with further effort, algae could work.
â€œIndeed, it would be very good if it did work, and weâ€™ve been supportive of the research. But just because itâ€™s a new technology doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s sustainable. There would still be land-use issues … and the impact on the local habitat.â€�
Parrâ€™s main concern, ironically, is that Europeâ€™s cap-and-trade ETS (emissions trading system) that came into effect on Jan. 1 and is considered too aggressive by its opponents, will be used as an excuse for airlines and other aviation players to say theyâ€™re tapped out â€“ that they have done all they can.â€�
Aviation accounts for between three and four per cent of the worldâ€™s greenhouse gas emissions. But that figure could climb fast with the huge increases in aviation infrastructure and capacity planned or currently under construction for the next decades in every part of the world.
Parr said that all the talk about biofuels in the industry is largely a smokescreen discussion meant to obscure the fact that its actual carbon footprint is growing by leaps and bounds â€“ paying lip service to biofuels while pushing unbridled growth at the expense of other, cleaner transportation modes.
â€œThe possible presence of future biofuels technology is used to argue that the problem is taken care of while you run an expansionist agenda â€“ more airports, runways, etc.â€�
â€œItâ€™s not that biofuel is not a good thing. Itâ€™s the way in which this possibility is being used to shape the current political debate.â€�
Cofsky said that at least the first step has been accomplished: the feasibility of replacing kerosene with some biofuels as a ready-to-use drop-in â€“ that is, requiring no extra step or alteration to existing procedure, operations or engine technology.
Entry into production on a large-scale and supplying airports are the â€œhills to climb now,â€� Cofsky said.
â€œAlgae is still fledgling,â€� McGinn conceded. The U.S. did a lot of research into micro-algae after the oil embargo in the 1970s, but â€œafter oil came down to $20 a barrel in the â€™90s, what was the point?â€� he asked.
Without massive government-sponsored research and industry nurturing it along in practice, â€œwe can do RD until weâ€™re blue in the face and it wonâ€™t matter.â€�
â€œBut the excitement has returned in the last few years.â€�
So when is a realistic time frame for biofuel in bulk from algae?
â€œSome say 10 to 15 years, but Iâ€™m in the camp that takes a longer view,â€� McGinn said.
â€œBut I do think thatâ€™s the approach thatâ€™s going to win in the end.â€�