Fine soot from a Qantas 744 cools and finds atmospheric moisture so creating contrails
Fine soot from a Qantas 744 cools and finds atmospheric moisture so creating contrails

A few trends are becoming apparent in the quest for non fossil carbon releasing jet fuels following a deal between a Boeing lead biofuels alliance and China interests.

One is that sh*t and other vegetable and animal wastes are seen as part of the answer.

And the other is that the terminology about biofuels and those that are called algal fuels is getting blurred, and can cause confusion in discussions of public policy and the more purely science based courses of action that are being advanced from all quarters.

This is the story about the China deal that appeared overnight:

Air China, PetroChina, Boeing and Honeywell’s UOP will conduct an inaugural flight using sustainable biofuel derived from biomass grown and processed in China. PetroChina will provide the biomass, which will be processed into jet fuel by UOP. The internal China flight will highlight the viability of the entire supply chain – from seed to flight

Boeing, PetroChina and Air China have begun to evaluate setting up a sustainable aviation biofuels industry in China. Other US participants include AECOM, Honeywell’s UOP and United Technologies.

The project will look at all phases of sustainable aviation biofuel development including agronomy, energy inputs and outputs, life cycle emissions analysis, infrastructure and government policy support.

Potential plant sources being considered are only ones that don’t distort the global food-chain, compete with fresh water resource or lead to unintended land use change.

Boeing China president David Wang commented: “Sustainable biofuels can help reduce carbon emissions while offering the potential to lessen aviation’s dependence on fossil fuels.”

In a related move, Boeing Research & Technology and the Chinese Academy of Science’s Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology have agreed to include other research institutions and aviation supply chain participants as part of their efforts in algae-based aviation biofuel development.

And this is the biofuels deal made by British Airways earlier this year, to take over 500,000 tonnes of biological or degradable material at a London waste processing centre a year and turn it into 16,000 gallons of clear fluid with all the fuel characteristics of aviation grade kerosene from 2014.

As discussed by Crikey subscribers this afternoon, there isn’t enough real sh*t in the vicinity of airports such as Melbourne’s to produce very much fuel on its own.

But what Boeing and other alternative energy consortiums are proving up are multiple pathways using a host of biological waste materials to create the same end product, something that burns and handles equally well in an existing jet engine as regular fossil carbon releasing refined kerosene.

In the wider picture, the quest for such fuels has gone through a number of stages. The original biofuels were really agri-fuels, using crop feed stock to make ethanol, which is blended with varying success with petroleum to diminish the amount of fossil carbon releasing fuel in a tank, but often with no real benefit because of higher fuel consumption that resulted in car engines.

Ethanol is also useless for jet engines.

The shorter term emphasis then shifted to non-agricultural biofuels, varying from Jatropha nuts that grow in temperate arid zones too dry for productive crop farming to the London and China projects, which seek to avoid compromising water and farm land resources.

Simultaneously the longer term focus of research settled on algal fuels-cultivating algae and designer microbes- that would source their carbon content from the atmosphere, or more specifically, the natural carbon interchanges between air, sea and land without the release of fossilised carbon.

Currently algal sourced kerosene equivalents have been flown as blends with biofuels in jet engines. At the recent ILA Berlin Air Show, EADS flew daily demonstration flights with a contemporary high performance twin engined light plane, a Diamond DA42, running purely on an algae sourced fuel in propeller engines that normally burn kerosene.

Powered by algae, an EADS photo of its green flight demonstrator.
Powered by algae, an EADS photo of its green flight demonstrator.

Algal grown octanes are seen as the ‘final’ solution to ending fossil carbon releasing fuel emissions in aircraft, with biofuels bridging the gap to their viable introduction through their being blended with conventionally refined kerosene on an increasing scale from 2015.

The real importance of these airline focused programs will however come from their application to surface and maritime transport and where possible, as another renewable alternative to the use of coal and heavy grades of oil in power generation and general industry.

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