The Exhaustive Biofuels Debate29 May 2009
The biofuels debate is heating up for the aviation industry. Penny Jones discovers that more than the environment is on the table when it comes to a viable future solution.
It was a timely meeting that brought together the best of the European and international aerospace and energy markets. Shell was there, as was Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Virgin Atlantic, representatives from the European Commission, government bodies including the Committee for Climate Change and Air Transport Action Group, scientists and environmentalists.
And while the setting was small – a conference room at the Royal British Library in London – the discussion titled 'aviation and climate change' was anything but. The contents of which, it was later said, were to have a lasting affect on how flight in modern times is governed and viewed by a responsible public, and how accountable airlines and manufacturers are to climate change.
Figures recently released by the Air Transport Action Group – a coalition of organisations and companies throughout the industry (funded by ACI, Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, CANSO, CFM, Embraer, GE, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and IATA) – provided the backdrop of concern. While the air industry accounts for only 2% of global CO2 emissions, the industry contributes 3% towards the man-made contribution to climate change (this figures includes other greenhouse gases). By 2050, however, this figure is likely to rise to 5%-6% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 3% of which will be CO2 from flight alone.
In all, the group predicts that flight emissions have been growing by some 3% year-on-year with a passenger growth of only 5%. This is despite new methods of flight efficiency and the current economic downturn equating to a predicted fall in the amount of emissions by the airline industry of 7.8% this year alone.
The industry argues that this is nothing compared to emissions from rail, road and shipping. And beyond doubt, over a long distance, flight is still the most fuel-efficient form of travel.
Aviation's emissions are arguably lower, with higher occupancy rates, lower infrastructure construction emissions and, especially in modern passenger craft like the A380, more fuel per kilometre over a longer distance. But that is not the argument at hand.
The argument for biofuels
Aviation is part of a larger transport segment that currently contributes to climate change by 14%. Take a country like the UK, where aviation is expected to contribute 21% to climate change by 2050 – no small figure. With the EU currently working on its emissions trading scheme (ETS) in the hope of limiting CO2 emissions, the airline industry as a whole has some work to do, if not for corporate social responsibility then purely to keep its head above the red.
It is not only the EU heading towards an ETS scheme. The US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand are also looking to cap and trade carbon. The aviation industry sees issues with monitoring international flight in this way, but that is an argument for further discussion. ETS or no ETS, the public is calling on the industry to make changes, and fast.
Air Transport Action Group executive director Paul Steele says it is now time for the aviation industry – previously proud of its environmental track record – to alter its view towards emissions, especially when it demands the right to grow.
"We need to disconnect the future growth of aviation with emissions growth. This recognition is hitting the industry hard," Steele told conference delegates this month. "Aviation emissions are going to be considered at Copenhagen (for discussions on the second Kyoto agreement on climate change) and we need to have a global approach as a sector to aviation [in response to Kyoto]."
The answer to meeting demand for lower emissions can be found in many things, from more efficient air traffic management to air-frame design and retrofitting. But according to Rolls-Royce VP strategic marketing Robert Nuttal, who looks after the company's future markets, engine technology that reduces fuel burn coupled with the use of biofuels will be the way forward.
"Jet engine technology will actually be the biggest single contributor in the next 20 years to reducing our environmental footprint. There is no other technology that can reduce fuel burn and CO2 and noise like it," Nuttal said.
Rolls-Royce and Airbus have been working on new models of engines for flight. Rolls-Royce, for example, has the open rotor engine that Nuttal says is CO2 powered and can have the same affect as planting 250,000 trees. But that is not where the industry excitement is building at present, even within engine design. For many advocates, biofuels, given the right attention, could hold the key for flight in a low-carbon future.
The forecasts for aviation CO2 emissions above do not take into account a number of areas where flight can improve including aircraft design, and more importantly the introduction of aircraft and engines that can run on biofuels. Once an inconceivable option, biofuels now have the support of all aerospace leaders. Virgin's 747-400 was tested on biofuel with the help of Boeing, and Airbus and Rolls-Royce both say significant R&D is being put into the area of biofuels, despite the economic.
Through the use of biofuels, according to the UK Committee on Climate Change, aircraft could become 40% to 50% more fuel efficient by 2025 compared to 2006 models, equalling a saving of 60 million tons of CO2. ATAG's Steele agrees. His group is a strong advocate for the use of biofuels, especially given the fuel's recent performance indicators.
"We think biofuels offer a lot of opportunities," Steele says. "We have proven that a lot of biofuels have as good, if not better, performance qualities than jet fuels."
Airbus has found that biofuels burn at a slower rate, reducing fuel burn. Boeing is also a strong advocate, having been a pioneer of much of the technology used today. Boeing actually puts 75% of its current R&D into biofuel.
But Boeing UK president Sir Roger Bone said while biofuels were viewed as a viable option on the ground, the challenge for making this fuel, and the vehicles it will power, safe and cost effective to both companies and communities, still holds a challenge for even the likes of Boeing.
"Biofuels do work. We are now testing ones that are sustainable on the ground to try and bring the technological applicability to biofuels in aviation. To date, we are not technically perfect but [we know biofuels] are better than kerosene, with a low CO2 lifecycle, cleaner burn and lower weight which adds to efficiency.
"This is why there is a great deal of excitement now in the industry about generation II biofuels."
Bone predicts that biofuels could be a viable option for flight in three to five years' time. But this estimate has raised eyebrows. Airbus, for example, has a different view. Airbus vice president of sustainable development and eco-efficiency Christian Dumas says he thinks five years is still too much of a challenge for an industry that has many hurdles to overcome when it comes to producing economically and socially responsible biofuel options. "You can fly on biofuels now but the quantities are still not there to secure investment," says Dumas. He is confident biofuels will work, but highlights a number of factors that will hold them back.
The slower burn
Any technology takes time to develop and, especially when dealing with a commodity the size of a jet liner in a space as dangerous as the sky, time to mature. R&D is undoubtedly being pumped into biofuel technologies, and the fact that this is the case even during a recession in western nations is credit to how important this area of development is.
For biofuels to work, however, they have to fit into the tank. At the end of February 2009, business aviation research company Flight Global said 1,400 aircraft were parked in desert storage sites, 70% of these were narrow bodies not fuel efficient enough to keep up with current high oil prices. At the same time, investment in more fuel-efficient craft such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner has seen 5,000 orders placed.
But even with a strong market for efficiency, biofuel implementation must be made as easy as possible for the market to want to take it up. The challenge is to devise a biofuel that can easily drop into existing fuel tanks. And this is not the only challenge according to UK Committee on Climate Change economic advisor Ben Coombes.
"We need to look at how long it will take to deploy the technology – this is another big issue," Coombes says. "We need solutions soon. At the moment we don't really have any understanding of time and we need this to create policy and work out what technology we have to provide."
Safety certifications and standards must also be created and the cost of creating biofuels must come down. The airline industry may work towards change for the climate, but no one expects it to run at a loss. It is here that more research and development is required, and not just from the big players.
The industry, and especially ATAG's Steele, has asked for more government incentive to encourage companies to increase R&D. As Steele says, "in order to get the big prize you have to make the big investment and be brave."
And lastly, communities on the ground, some who may never even get to experience flight, must be protected if a new biofuel industry is formed. The industry must come up with ways to ensure its responsibility to more than just carbon emissions schemes.
There in lies the juxtaposition that is a biofuel future – so much hope but at the same time, some large and important challenges to overcome. Getting the balance for biofuels right will be crucial for an aviation industry facing new responsibilities and market demands. But as doors close on one meeting, others will open for further discussion into the right way forward, and the debate about biofuels is sure to be on the table.