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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Biofuels May Be The Future Of The Aviation Industry

jet fuel A1

Alternative and renewable aviation fuels such as biofuel blends won’t be replacing traditional jet fuels any time soon, but the aviation industry continues to take them very seriously.

On average, the aviation sector consumes 10 percent of the total energy required in the transportation sector each year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). It produces its share of greenhouse gas emissions as a transport sector, which airline executives and regulators have been working on reducing through alternative fuels – especially biofuel drop-ins blended with traditional jet fuels.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. specialized agency, held a seminar on alternative fuels in aviation earlier this month in Montreal. Panelists discussed the recently passed international agreement, the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. Key issues discussed were support for the use of alternative fuels in aviation, finance and assistance programs, and legal and regulatory frameworks.

Years ago, United Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, and several other airlines and governing bodies, became one of the very first commercial sectors to commit to limiting carbon emissions over the next 20 years. During the ICAO panel, the future of deploying sustainable fuels to meet these targets was explored along with operational practices to reduce jet fuel consumption and emissions. Some of the efficiency practices outlined during the panel included using more fuel-efficient airplanes, optimized flight plans, and turning off jet engines while idling on tarmacs.

Test projects are being done in aviation to develop renewable jet biofuels including using hydro-treated oils; and fermentation processes done by biotech firm Amyris with French oil company Total. These and other fuel companies were acknowledged by experts at the ICAO conference for development projects supporting sustainable jet fuels.

Finland-based oil refining company Neste Corp. is known for testing and developing alternative transport fuels, including being considered the world’s leading supplier of renewable diesel. Neste Oil says that because of its fossil fuel-like chemical composition and excellent cold weather performance, Neste Renewable Aviation fuel can be blended well with fossil jet fuel. Related: The Baltic Sea: Europe’s Forgotten $80 Billion Oil Play?

The company says that its Neste Winter Grade Renewable Fuel is currently waiting for approval by American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) for use as an aviation fuel.

In 2012, Neste Oil worked with Lufthansa to test another of its fuels, Neste Renewable Jet Fuel, on a total of 1,187 flights. Boeing has successfully tested Neste's renewable fuel as a component of aviation fuel, as well.

Hamburg airport in Germany started using Neste's renewable diesel as a solution to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels last November, for its diesel-powered ground fleet. Hamburg would like to follow the lead set by Oslo Gardemoen Airport, which is considered to be the “first European biohub in aviation” after it started offering renewable jet fuel to all airlines visiting the airport in January 2016. Hamburg airport said that Neste Oil is playing a key role in renewable fuel solutions in aviation.

United Airlines is a leader in testing out biofuels in its fleet. The airline is using biofuel blends in place of conventional jet fuel on short hop flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company’s plan is to bring biofuel use to all its domestic flights leaving the LAX hub; and then eventually to roll it out to all its flights globally.

United’s blend has been 30 percent biofuels and 70 percent conventional jet fuel produced by

California-based Alt Air Fuels. Alt Air operates a refinery near LA and plans to deliver about 15 million gallons of refined biofuel product to United through 2019. Related: Energy Minister Novak: Russia Cuts More Oil Output In February

Market intelligence company Transparency Market Research just released a study analyzing the global aviation alternative fuel market. Biofuels, CNG, LNG, and other fuels are being considered, but biofuels are seen in the study as the alternative aviation fuel anticipated to see the most sales growth. With biofuels coming mainly from vegetable oils such as camellia, jatropha, sugar crops, cereals, and algae, the feedstock is available in high volumes.

A few barriers will need to be crossed for biofuels to reach a profitable production scale as an aviation fuel. While considered to be clean fuels, the longtime debate over “food vs. fuel” can still block government incentives and support, as has been experienced by ethanol and biodiesel in ground transportation sectors; another hurdle to cross will be meeting stringent production quality and safety standards required for aviation fuel.

Developed regions such as North America and Europe are the key markets for aviation alternative fuels, according to the study. Asia Pacific is slated to be another growth market for these fuels, with China, India, and ASEAN member states expected to see real growth in air traffic. Latin America is another region to watch, with Brazil expected to lead the way.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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