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Aeromexico operates its weekly flight from Mexico City to San José, Costa Rica using a 30-percent biofuel blend.

Green jet fuels could take off in Chicago and the Midwest

by Alan Yu
Nov 07, 2012

Boeing, United Airlines and several other Chicago entities hope to make the Midwest a hub for the production of green jet fuels.

Although most of the technology required to produce biofuels for aircraft on a large scale already exists, the airline industry needs to lower the cost of production by finding the best crop to use and pursue government support. At the Airports Going Green Conference at the Westin River North Monday, representatives from the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative (MASBI) said they will release a report next summer detailing what crops, government policies and performance metrics will be best suited for producing aviation biofuels in the Midwest. MASBI also includes technology licensor  Honeywell's UOP, the Chicago Department of Aviation, and the Clean Energy Trust, a Chicago-based nonprofit that encourages clean energy development in the Midwest.

MASBI hopes to develop a clean alternative fuel for airlines as well as bring jobs and revenue to the Midwest, said Amy Francetic, executive director of the Clean Energy Trust. When MASBI was established in May, it noted the Midwest’s unique location because it is a hub for airlines, agriculture and research institutions — the components needed for biofuel development.

The Clean Energy Trust is “very excited because we don’t often have the large corporate folks trying to roll the technology out,” Francetic said. “In this case, there’s a strong market pull and that’s sort of a unique opportunity to get everybody organized.”

Green jet fuels take off globally 

The technology for green jet fuel already exists, said Stephen Emmert, regional director of biofuels strategy at Boeing. Last year, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials), an organization that develops voluntary technical standards, approved renewable jet fuels for use in commercial aircraft.

Aeromexico already uses a 15-percent biofuel blend from Honeywell's UOP (formerly Universal Oil Products) to power its weekly flights between Mexico City and San José, Costa Rica. Boeing has organized programs similar to MASBI around the world, most recently this August in Australia, Emmert said.

A similar initiative in the Pacific Northwest in May last year brought two $40 million grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Washington State University and the University of Washington to investigate how to develop biofuels from trees instead of crops on a commercial scale. Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill this March allowing aviation biofuel producers to apply for state financing through low-interest bonds.

“We haven’t yet built any biofuels facilities in the Northwest but there are several developers that are pretty interested and active,” Emmert said. “Results from the [initiative] in the Northwest are encouraging and that’s part of what spurred on some more activity.”

Further research will focus on finding fuels that will have similar costs to conventional jet fuel, will not require any modifications to the aircraft, and do not use “food for fuel,” he said.

Finding the right fuel

Finding the right crop for biofuel production is important because with the wrong one, biofuels could end up producing more greenhouse gases than conventional jet fuel, said Steven Barrett, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He pointed to a peer-reviewed study authored by James Hileman, his colleague at MIT, which found the amount of greenhouse gas reductions from biofuels depends heavily on transport and where the crops are grown. For example, refining biofuels from palm oil grown by clearing a rainforest produces more greenhouse gases than conventional jet fuels.

“That’s one of the key uncertainties that [airlines] want to make sure [of] -- that what they do is beneficial and not costly overall,” Barrett said. “Obviously biomass-derived fuels have the potential to lead to a great decrease in CO2 emissions and also emissions that degrade air quality and subsequently impact human health.”

Biofuels don’t come cheap

Another major obstacle is the relatively high cost of biofuel production, said Jim Andersen, program management director for Honeywell UOP’s renewable energy & chemicals business unit. Andersen said MASBI hopes to find a suitable crop in the Midwest that is both cheap and will not compete with food crops. Clean Energy Trust’s Francetic pointed out that those attributes are important, because a crop grown in the Midwest means it will cost less to transport the fuel to the airlines, and a crop that is not used for food means biofuel production will not impact food prices.

Honeywell’s Green Jet Fuel would cost about $3.50 per gallon, assuming full commercial production levels and federal incentive. Conventional jet fuel currently costs about $3 per gallon, Andersen said. Even after MASBI identifies a suitable crop for the Midwest, it will take time to start production, he said.

“It takes at least two to three years for these projects to be built and to get the feedstocks supply chain worked out,” Andersen said. “None of these things happen overnight.”

Additional incentives needed

Renewable jet fuels will require some mandate or economic incentive to succeed, Andersen said, simply because it is still relatively easy and cheap to harvest and refine petroleum to jet fuel, given current crude oil prices and carbon costs. As an example, he pointed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuels Standard, which now dictates 9 percent of all fuels must come from renewable sources.

Despite the economic challenges, the aviation industry is still enthusiastic about renewable jet fuels because it could bring greater energy security and the United States is leading efforts, Barrett said.

“The U.S. really is leading the way in terms of biofuels and in terms of methods to make aviation sustainable, and Europe is doing very well in that regard as well. There’s the potential for creating domestic biofuels here given the availability of land,” Barrett said. “I remain impressed at the commitment across industries and government to try and see if this makes sense and to make it happen.”