Aviation Industry an Enormous Growth Challenge for Biofuels

To meet the demand for sustainable aviation biofuels with algae, the industry would have to build a new plant every month for the next 20 to 30 years, Biojet Corp. Chairman Chuck Fishel noted during Tuesday’s General Plenary Session at BIO’s World Congress.

Michael Lakeman of Boeing put forward a more cautious goal of meeting 1 percent of jet fuel demand with biofuels by 2015. That would still require 60 million gallons, though, and from Boeing’s perspective, they must be truly sustainable.

Fishel still worries whether the airline industry is an attractive market for algae and advanced biofuels. Biotech companies can make more money by pursuing low-volume, high-value chemicals than high-volume, low-value jet fuels. So would airlines be able to compete for these sustainable solutions?

Navy Director of Operational Energy Chris Tindal, however, is far more certain about the Defense Department’s needs for sustainable biofuels, particularly from algae. The Navy has set a goal of using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 and launching the Great Green Fleet by 2016. Currently, the military uses about 2 percent of all energy used in the United States, with most of that represented by transportation fuels. So, it is a niche market, but one that still requires cost competitiveness as well as a sustainable level of greenhouse gas emissions.

Navy Asst. Sec. Chris Tindal Speaking at the 2011 BIO World Congress

Tindal also made clear that what the Navy wants is to be able to pull into ports around the world to refuel with biofuels. Relying on a single large producer of fuel and a long worldwide supply line would recreate one of the problems with the military’s reliance on oil.

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Pacific Rim Summit Focuses on Drop In Fuels for Military

BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit came to a close on Tuesday, but not before giving attendees a preview of what the industry expects to be two of the hottest trends for 2011, as recorded in a recent BIO/Biofuels Digest poll.

Department of Defense interest in biofuels is expected to increase, due to the national security implications of reliance on oil. As Chris Tindal, director of Operational Energy for the U.S. Navy, explained to attendees of the Summit, “While the Department of the Navy is a significant consumer of fuel, neither DoN nor DoD can affect the price of oil. Therefore, both are at the mercy of the market – both the stability of supplies and fluctuations in price.”

Tindal noted that the DoD used 119 million barrels of petroleum in FY08. The Blue Navy used 29.4 million barrels (not including Marine Corps). And the airline industry and the Department of Defense collectively consume 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel per day. The Navy has set a goal of replacing 50 percent of petroleum in the commercial fleet by 2015.

Tindal also noted that the Defense Energy Support Center and the Air Transport Association of America signed an Alternative Fuels Pact on March 19, 2010. The pact sets shared goals of spurring the development and deployment of commercially viable and environmentally friendly alternative aviation fuels.

Commercialization of Bioproducts
Paul Bryan, Biomass Program manager at the Department of Energy, gave some detail behind the second expected trend for 2011, that attention will be given to bioproducts and renewable chemicals in addition to biofuels. Bryan emphasized that we need to “develop technologies and supply chains to replace the whole barrel and all products made from crude today.” Because so many products are made from each barrel of petroleum, and biofuels displace a portion of each barrel, oil refineries have no incentive to make a shift.

If we reduce total petroleum usage as a percentage of one market, we need to think about how that impacts other markets. The most obvious issue is that we have to replace diesel and jet in proportion to gasoline, since their combined volume is approximately three-quarters that of gasoline, and their markets are projected to grow significantly faster than that for gasoline. But other products are important, too. The largest chunk of the ‘other products’ in the barrel is the petrochemical industry, virtually all of which is based on crude oil and natural gas.