Last week, for the first time, a jumbo jet used a blend of biofuel and kerosene on a transatlantic flight. Also last week, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines announced a biofuel supply agreement to commence regular flights on a biofuel-petroleum blend on 200 Amsterdam-to-Paris runs starting in September. Lufthansa could beat it by a month under previously announced plans to launch a six-month test on Frankfurt-Hamburg flights.
Such regularly scheduled operations mark a big jump from the one-off biofuels flights that airlines have conducted since 2009. Aviation and biofuels sources say this indicates that biofuel-based jet fuels are ready to be scaled up. Amy Bann, director of environmental policy for Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, says the KLM and Lufthansa announcements “signal to governments, fuel processors, and the financial community that the demand and market for these fuels exist.”
Pressure to cap and ultimately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is driving the developments. The European Commission is making flights within, into, and out of Europe subject to its carbon-trading scheme starting in 2012—a move that will cost the aviation industry an estimated €1.4 billion ($2 billion) next year and about €7 billion by 2020, according to a March 2011 report by Oslo-based consultancy Thomson Reuters Point Carbon.
Environmental groups say biofuels make sense for aviation, since they are the sector’s only alternative to petroleum. “You’re not going to have electric airplanes,” says Kate McMahon, biofuels campaign coordinator for Washington-based Friends of the Earth.
What has enabled aviation biofuels to shift to limited commercial service is the certification earlier this month of biofuels derived from animal and vegetable oils by standards body ASTM International. The provisional approval, to be finalized by August, covers aviation biofuels produced from oils via hydroprocessing—a catalytic process used in petroleum refining.
Hydroprocessed oil from camelina, a biofuels crop, powered Boeing’s historic transatlantic flight last week (the flight was also the first in which all four engines of a commercial aircraft were flown on a biofuel blend). Camelina can be grown on wheat fields during periods when the fields would otherwise be left fallow, and thus shouldn’t drive up food prices. And because the crop can be grown on existing fields, it can also avoid undesirable land use changes, such as the deforestation associated with palm oil cultivation in Southeast Asia.
KLM and Lufthansa also plan to use hydroprocessed oils as their biofuel source. KLM’s will be produced from waste cooking oil by Dynamic Fuels, the Geismar, Louisiana-based joint venture of Tyson Foods and process developer Syntroleum. Finnish refiner Neste Oil will supply Lufthansa’s biofuel blend by hydroprocessing oils from an as-yet-undisclosed feedstock that Lufthansa says will be “sustainable.”