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Biofuels Take Off

KLM and Lufthansa say they’ll burn bio-based jet fuel on regular routes.

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.

Taking off: Last week, this Boeing 747 became the first commercial jet to use a biofuel-jet fuel blend to make a transatlantic flight.

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.”

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.

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