Promising test results, push for cleaner fuels could mean the aviation biofuels market is set to expand


Over the last decade, the bioenergy industry has laid the groundwork to expand into the aviation sector. Now, as airlines from Africa to Europe celebrate their first commercial flights with sustainable biofuels, the overlap between these two industries is greater than ever before.


Of course, this was a foreseeable development. With air travel increasing, airlines need to buy more fuel. Simultaneously, they face a risk of increasing fuel costs, and pressure to reduce their carbon footprint.


Those are just a few reasons why large aviation companies like Boeing, United Airlines, Lufthansa and British Airlines are testing whether sustainable fuels could be the main fuel source for airplanes in the future. Yet at the same time, these industry leaders are not only proving the viability of these new aviation biofuels—they are also helping to raise awareness as to why switching to bioenergy is responsible and necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Recent launches were prefaced by years of testing, innovation

In March 2016, United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to use commercial-scale volumes of biofuel for a normally scheduled flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. According to United Airlines’ managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability, the launch was “historic,” and it represented a major next step in United Airlines’ “ongoing commitment to operate sustainably and responsibly.” But such a major step had been years in the making.


In 2006, a new company seeking to promote and advance the use of renewable energy in the aviation industry, Green Flight International (GFI), started coordinating and conducting tests with the Federal Aviation Administration. These tests led to the first jet flight using all biofuel in October 2007: the Biojet I, an Aero L-29 Delfin aircraft designed in 1960s Czechoslovakia and running on 100% biodiesel.


A few years later, German airline Lufthansa began testing the use of renewable fuels in commercial flights, prompting a New York Times article on aviation companies shifting to these new fuel types. It highlighted Lufthansa’s 6-month trial on scheduled commercial flights from Hamburg to Frankfurt, Germany, and quoted Lufthansa’s vice president for aviation biofuels, Joachim Buse, acknowledging that there was, “still a long way to go.”


Then in 2013, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced an action plan to fight climate change. The organization sought to support the use of renewable fuels in aviation after recognizing the sustainability and reduced emissions of the alternate energy source. Since the IATA’s announcement, many other organizations have developed partnerships with companies and governments to find the best source of energy for the industry.


Where aviation biofuels are headed from here

The use of sustainable fuels in United Airlines flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles earlier this year was indeed historic. It not only set a precedent for other airlines, it also fueled an international push for affordable, bio-based jet fuel.


With more and more airlines testing renewable fuels, the aviation market is beginning to expand. At the end of March, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines announced approximately 80 flights powered with biofuel from Oslo, Norway to Amsterdam. Increased air traffic over the last few years, and projected increases in the future further emphasize the need to use more sustainable energy in this sector.


Now, Boeing and Embraer are preparing the launch of a new green-airplane prototype, the Embraer E170, which will take to the skies in Brazil after the Rio 2016 Olympics. This aircraft, which runs on a mix of 10% bio-kerosene and 90% fossil kerosene, should benefit from new developments in technology that will make it quieter, cleaner and cheaper, allowing it to fly more frequently and burn less fuel.


Thus far, the industry has had promising results with early tests and small scale commercial use. Many major airlines are working directly with energy companies to develop these fuels on a larger scale to sustain expanded use on bigger and longer routes. As the technology to produce aviation-grade biofuels continues to improve, more flights will run on cleaner, renewable fuels. Contrary to the common phrase, this might be one case where not even the sky is the limit.


What do you think? Is aviation biofuel poised to take off, or is it destined to taxi on the runway for the foreseeable future? Let us know in the comments!

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Alex Cerwin

Business Development & Marketing Manager at Novozymes

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