When United Airlines took off from Chicago for Washington, DC last December, it landed a significant development: the use of 100% sustainable aviation fuel. The goal is that biofuels will fully power the airline industry by 2050.
The aviation industry is getting swept into the international movement to reduce CO2 emissions. By using renewable jet fuels derived from such things as algae, waste carbon, or corn-based ethanol, it can make its mark. For it to succeed, the airlines must be convinced to enter into long-term contracts with the bio-refineries that produce those sustainable products — possible now, given sky-high oil prices.
“Algae is a good alternative fuel source for this industry. It’s an alternate feedstock for bioethanol refinery without the need for pretreatment. It’s lower cost than coal or natural gas. It also provides for a more efficient way of carbon capture and utilization,” says Joshua Yuan, chair of Synthetic Biology and Renewable Products in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology.
His comments were published in the journal Nature Communications. Professor Yuan’s research centers on using artificial intelligence to produce algae as a reliable biofuel for jetliners and other forms of transportation. He says that low yields and high harvesting costs are hindering algae production — something brought about by limited sunlight and poor cultivation. It’s hampered even further by access to nutrients, water, and private capital.
According to reportlinker.com, the biofuels industry is poised to grow by $1.31 billion between 2022 and 2026. That would be a compound annual growth rate of 6.74%. Exxon Mobil, for example, is investing $600 million in algae. Algae is highly synergistic with the established oil and gas industries, and it can be refined on the same site as is petroleum.
The US Energy Department says that the biofuels industry has produced 17 billion gallons of fuel and prevented 544 million metric tons of CO2. The goal, initially, is to use that fuel to offset petroleum. Sustainable aviation fuels are made from multiple forms of renewable energy — including food waste, animal waste, and sewage sludge. The department says that its carbon footprint can be 165% smaller than petroleum-based jet fuel.
Airliners that have used biofuels for their commercial flights include Azul Airlines, British Airways, Jet Blue, KLM, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Australia, and Virgin Atlantic. As for Jet Blue, it is using sustainable aviation fuel at its hub in the Los Angeles International Airport. It is working with World Energy and World Fuel Services so that it can get sustainable aviation fuel.
“JetBlue is facing climate change head-on and preparing our business for a new climate reality,” says Sara Bogdan, the airline’s director of sustainability and environmental governance. “Sustainable aviation fuel is one of the most promising ways to rapidly reduce air travel emissions and help our industry move toward our net-zero goals.”
Meanwhile, the Virgin Atlantic flight was a Boeing 747 flight from Orlando to London in March 2020. It was made possible by LanzaTech, which converts waste carbon gases into ethanol and chemicals — all in collaboration with the national labs and specifically with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Jet fuels are produced from crude oil. About half of its contents must come from biofuels to be considered renewable. That can include algae, carbon waste, and ethanol made from corn or wood chips. For example, Gevo has a $100 million agreement with Scandinavian Airlines to begin supplying it with sustainable aviation fuel in 2024. It also has a 10 million gallons per year deal with Delta Airlines. Gevo uses industrial corn products to make sustainable fuel.
“Long-term investments such as our agreement with Gevo are critical to Delta’s goal to lower our carbon footprint while planning for a more sustainable future,” says Graeme Burnett, Senior Vice President — Fuel Management at Delta Air Lines. “Fuel is an airline’s biggest area of impact and therefore presents our greatest opportunity to drive solutions that care for the planet.”
The big concern is whether the production of biofuels creates more greenhouse gases than just burning petroleum straight up. The journal of Environmental Science and Technology looked at the life cycle of algae compared to other biofuels such as corn and switchgrass. It concluded that using conventional crops to create fuels will result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less water consumption than if algae are used to do the same thing.
Biofuels can supplement petroleum now to fly airplanes. But if sustainable aviation fuels provide the preponderance of power used, they have to overcome many obstacles. That includes more efficient energy production and appealing to would-be investors so that the airlines will enter into long-term contracts with suppliers. The incentives are there, given the high price of petroleum.