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Airlines Soar to Environmentally Friendlier Skies with Biofuels

The biofuels industry, tossed about by changing government policies and fluctuations in oil prices, is looking at a smoother ride ahead, as major airline companies seek to incorporate more biofuels in commercial aircraft.

JetBlue reported Sept. 19, 2018, it had launched its first two Airbus A321 flights fueled with a renewable jet fuel blend, with four more new aircraft set for delivery by the end of this year, all to be powered by renewable jet fuel blended with traditional jet fuel. Cathay Pacific, which has used biofuel on 22 aircraft since 2016, announced in June it will use the low-carbon fuels on a new fleet being delivered in the next four years.

In September, United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to pledge that by 2050 it will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by half relative to 2005 levels, which is the goal for airlines set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). United says it will accomplish this by expanding use of sustainable aviation biofuels, purchasing more fuel-efficient aircraft and implementing operational changes to conserve fuel.

Aviation biofuels pioneer Virgin Atlantic, which flew the first biofuel-powered commercial flight in 2008, announced it will use LanzaTech’s sustainable fuel, which is derived from waste carbon from steel mills, in a commercial flight in October. A Boeing 747 will be fueled with the low-carbon liquid for a flight from Orlando to London’s Gatwick in a demonstration that the airline says will show the fuel, derived from captured waste gas from steel mills, is a feasible option for airlines.

In his blog, published Sept. 13, 2018, Sir Richard Branson, British entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Group, part owner of Virgin Atlantic, wrote that he was “excited to reveal that Virgin Atlantic’s low carbon fuel partnership with LanzaTech has taken a vital step forward. This October we will make history by using LanzaTech’s innovative new sustainable aviation fuel in a commercial flight for the first time.

The flight will demonstrate “the art of the possible,’’ Branson writes, “taking a landmark leap towards making this ground-breaking new low carbon technology a mainstream reality.’’

Biofuels are derived from renewable crops and algae, or from wood and waste biomass. They produce fewer greenhouse gases, such as carbon emissions, and are mixed in varying ratios with traditional jet fuels, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and lightening the industry’s overall carbon imprint. LanzaTech’s unique process uses waste carbon from industry to produce ethanol gases that can, in turn, be turned into low-carbon jet fuel. Among advantages, Branson says, is that this eliminates the problem of land use and food competition, and with such a plentiful waste stream available, it can be priced on a par with traditional jet fuel.

Already, a number of airlines and airports are using “sustainable aviation fuels,’’ or SAF, the broader term preferred by IATA, the industry association. Airlines account for just 2 percent of global carbon emissions each year, but it is a major concern to regulators and investors because of the industry’s growth and expansion, especially across emerging markets. IATA, the industry trade association, supports use of sustainable aviation fuels, SAF, and set a target for a billion passengers to fly on airplanes powered by a mix of standard jet fuel and sustainable fuel, by 2025. IATA says a flight that is totally powered by sustainable fuel could potentially reduce the carbon emissions of that flight by up to 80 percent. Several airlines, including FedEx Express, JetBlue, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Qantas and United have invested in purchasing 1.5 billion gallons of SAF, IATA reports, and airports in Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles are mixing SAF with the general fuel supply.

“The momentum for sustainable aviation fuels is now unstoppable,’’ says IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac in a statement. “From one flight in 2008, we passed the threshold of 100,000 flights in 2017, and we expect to hit one million flights during 2020.’’

But to reach the goal of 1 billion passengers on SAF-powered flights by the target date, he says, will take more than the commitment of airlines. It will take government policies that encourage innovation and support strong markets for cleaner fuels. “We need governments to set a framework to incentivize production of SAF and ensure it is as attractive to produce as automotive biofuels,’’ he says.

American Diversified Energy (ADE) has a team of experts who have experience in conducting feasibility studies, applying for federal grants and guaranteed loans for technology development in biofuels and other forms of alternative energy. Feel free to contact or call us at 202-750-0007 for more information.


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