The European Commission, meanwhile, vowed last week to facilitate the emerging bio jet fuel movement, launching an initiative with Airbus, major airlines, and European biofuel producers to push the supply of aviation biofuels to two million tons per year by 2020. The biofuels are to be produced in Europe from European-grown feedstocks.
While U.S. airlines have yet to announce biofuels-based flights, they are promising to do so. Last week, the Air Transport Association of America, an industry trade group, said that nine airlines have committed to using biofuels from Washington-based Solena Fuels for flights out of San Francisco Bay-area airports. Solena’s process uses gasification to break down municipal and agricultural wastes into syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), which it then converts it into synthetic fuels.
Such biomass-to-liquids jet fuel was approved for aviation use by ASTM last year. However, Solena has yet to finance its proposed $300 million plant because of high costs and a dearth of policy supports in the United States for bio-based jet fuels.
Englewood, Colorado-based Gevo announced progress last week toward ASTM certification for a third process for producing bio jet fuel: upgrading alcohol biofuels. Gevo is converting corn fermentation plants to produce bio-butanol instead of ethanol, and says it can upgrade its bio-butanol to jet fuel at a relatively low cost.
Gevo executive vice president Jack Huttner says acceptance of testing data by an ASTM technical panel last week puts its bio-butanol based jet fuel on track for testing in jet engines early next year and for certification in 2013. He says Gevo already negotiated a supply agreement with airlines operating out of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
According to Huttner, biofuels producers don’t need to match the price of petroleum jet fuel to begin selling to airlines. “There is a value to the airlines to having alternative supplies of their most important raw material. That option value would enable them to pay a little more for a certain portion of their fuel mix to be able to hedge against spikes in oil,” says Huttner.
The problem with Gevo’s fuel is its source. Unless Gevo can convert its plants to use biomass instead of food-based feedstocks—an upgrade Gevo is working on—its fuel will have a carbon footprint similar to ethanol’s and will compete with food markets. According to KLM and Lufthansa and the European Commission, those are deal breakers.