Biofuel as a sustainable alternative in the aviation industry

Plane engine

Plane engine

With the introduction of new technologies, biofuels could make out a sustainable strategy in the Norwegian aviation industry by 2025. But it takes by-product sales to make it profitable, states Ramboll report.

The aviation industry is responsible for approximately 2% of the global CO2 emissions. It does not sound like much, but the aviation industry expects a high growth in traffic towards 2025, and emissions at higher altitude are expected to lead to increased global warming.

There is a common understanding among politicians, airlines, aircraft and engine producers that the industry must play an active role in contributing to the global emissions reduction.

A recent Ramboll report concludes that if based on sustainable biomass value chains, new biofuel technologies can replace large amounts of fossil fuels and help solve today’s environmental challenges. The results suggest that it is both technically and economically feasible to facilitate a sustainable and renewable Jet A-1 biofuel production by 2020-25.

- Preliminary analyses showed that the fuel could be competitive, but it is crucial that the by-product sales should provide an income. It is necessary to carry out further calculations to estimate the profitability more precisely for a specific production plant, but it seems that biofuel could be the future environmental alternative for Norwegian aviation, says Project Manager Magnus Killingland.

New technologies ensure sustainable production

Biofuels will be an important measure, but they are currently only available in small quantities at high cost. Ramboll was commissioned by the Norwegian Aviation Industry represented by Avinor, SAS, Norwegian and The Federation of Norwegian Aviation Industries with investigating and assessing the possibilities for profitable and sustainable production of Jet A-1 biofuel. Sustainable aviation biofuel is regarded as the most important reduction measure for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the aviation industry the next 10-15 years.

A lot of new technologies were investigated to develop an efficient, sustainable and competitive way of reducing carbon emissions.

- The production of Jet A-1 biofuel is an innovative and long-term solution for aviation in Norway, while investigating new types of resources, such as algae and biomass, would also enable more cost-efficient production, says Frantz Buch Knudsen.

There are no technical barriers concerning the use of biofuels. Biobased Jet A-1 can be blended 50% with fossil fuels and conventional Jet A-1. Three  types of production processes for renewable fuels have been certified technologically for 50% blending, and a fourth is expected to be certified soon:

  • HEFA - hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids
    Approved in 2011, probably only viable in Norway in the future from arctic and cold water algae
  • Thermochemical processing and gasification of forest industry biomass (FT Jet A-1)
    The process is called Fischer-Tropsch (FT). The main challenge is gasification of biomass and gas cleaning before the FT synthesis gas production. The process and FT-fuels was certified for Jet A-1 production in 2009. 
  • Synthesized Iso-Paraffin (SIP) farnesane
    Recently approved (June 2014), a process developed by Total and Amyris  

Jet A-1 produced from renewable second generation bioethanol (AtJ)

The AtJ process includes refining of bioalcohols to Jet A-1. This process does not include the bioalcohol production, but uses alcohols as feedstock. The process is expected to be certified in 2015.The advantage with the AtJ value chain is that various bioalcohols which are available globally can be used.

Up to 80% carbon reductions

The climate effect from the biofuels was calculated using life cycle assessment procedures (LCA). The results demonstrated an 81% climate reduction with FT-fuels, while AtJ resulted in a 65% reduction, compared to fossil fuels in a 50-100 year perspective. Both processes are within the EU 60% reduction sustainability criteria for biofuels from new biofuel production plants after 2017. The following key issues were assessed from a sustainability perspective:

  • Nature, environment and climate: Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, prevent loss of biological diversity and ecosystem services, as well as high agricultural standards
  • Social issues: Human rights, health and food security
  • Economics: Profitability, long-term economic development, new jobs, and an optimal societal resource management

The choice of feedstock is one of the most significant parameters in term of costs, effectiveness and sustainability.

The assessment of land-based and marine feedstock in Norway showed that forest biomass is the most important feedstock on a short-term basis, while imported feedstock is competitively available. Norwegian micro and macro algae resources for energy and fuel purposes will most probably not be available in large volumes before 2025.

As a part of the study, Ramboll conducted meetings and seminars with companies interested in participating in the development of new technologies as well as public agencies, European airlines, environmental interest groups, and research and development institutions from both Norway and overseas. Through these meetings, stakeholders identified challenges and potential solutions relating to the use of biofuel.

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