Game-changing day for jet biofuels

The aviation industry has taken a significant step in the adoption of biofuels, industry leaders said today.

The newly created Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group requires its members to use biofuels produced from nonfood sources and with minimal environmental impact.

Founders include Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Honeywell (NYSE: HON) subsidiary UOP, as well as the commercial airlines that account for 15 percent of commercial jet-fuel use: Air France, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

The group’s intent amounts to an endorsement of the progress being made by second-generation biofuel developers, said Randy Cortright, founder and chief technical officer of Madison, Wis.-based Virent Energy Systems, which develops gasoline and jet fuel from sugar. Specifications for jet fuels are extremely stringent because the industry is more risk-averse than other transportation methods, he said.

“They’re fairly skeptical of any type of compound that’s not petroleum,” he told the Cleantech Group. “But this industry support is clearly showing that the transportation sector is moving in this direction, and we are going to need to have that support from the end-users like this if we’re going to be able to commercialize our products.”

Virent uses a catalyst to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery. Cortright said the catalyst process has the advantage over other biofuel production methods of using sugar, which is cheap, and using a faster process that can use a wide range of biomass for its feedstock.

South San Francisco, Calif.-based Solazyme also uses sugar in its fermentation process to make algae-based biofuels (see Solazyme joins algae elite with additional $45M). In early September, Solazyme announced it produced an algae-based jet fuel that received third-party verification from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. That designation means the company can market its biofuel to the aviation industry, the company said.

Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, said Solazyme plans to work with the newly formed industry group to get algal biofuels adopted as jet fuels.

“It’s great to see these major aviation companies like Boeing come together to support sustainable clean aviation fuels,” Wolfson said.

Several airlines have shown support for biofuels in recent months. Tokyo-based Japan Airlines is working with Boeing on a cellulosic biofuel-powered flight (see Japan Airlines plans cellulosic biofuels flight). Houston-based Continental Airlines (NYSE: CAL) said it would conduct a biofuels demonstration flight in the first half of 2009 (see Continental Airlines to test biofuels).

And earlier in the year, the U.K.’s Virgin Atlantic completed the world’s first biofuel-powered test flight of a commercial aircraft (see Virgin takes off with commercial biofuel test flight).

Cortright said Virent has found support to develop both aviation and vehicle biofuels. Since 2002, Virent has secured $11 million from government-funded projects and $30 million in venture capital (see Biofuel bonanza).

More than a year ago, Virent got third-party certification that its jet fuel can meet the boiling- and freezing-point requirements, Cortright said. Now, the company is working on reaching the typical biofuel milestones: appropriate yields, catalyst lifetimes and proven economics, he said. Cortright said the technology could be commercially ready in five to seven years, either through developing plants or licensing the process.

Virent has focused its attention on biogasoline through its partnership with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) for a product to be used in regular vehicles and in the existing gasoline infrastructure (see Virent’s biogasoline gets Big Oil backing). Virent is currently producing about half a gallon a day but is in the design phase for a larger unit capable of 25 gallons a day that will likely begin operating next year, Cortright said (see Cleantech speed dating in San Francisco).

The process to create gasoline and jet fuel is very similar, but there’s less competition to create biofuels for jets, so Virent is closely watching that market, Cortright said.

Cortright said there’s likely to be more demand for biofuels for jets as European countries tax or limit the carbon emissions of the airline industry, which accounts for 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2008 annual report of the Air Transport Association. The group says fuel costs account for roughly 40 percent of the airline industry’s expenses.

The ATA is opposing European Union plans of including aviation emissions in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

“There’s talk of incentives in the future for more CO2 friendly jet fuel—a lot of talk, but not much action,” Cortright said. “But this is something that could change that because it’s coming from the industry and not the government.”

The industry-led push is being implemented with help from the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group mandates that the aviation fuels:

  • come from crops that are non-competitive with food and do not jeopardize drinking water supplies
  • produce less greenhouse gases than fossil-fuel based jet fuel in the process of growth, harvesting, processing, and end-use
  • do not use crops that require the involuntary displacement of local populations
  • do not use crops that require the clearing of conservation areas or native ecosystems