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Mar 14, 2016

Virgin, Air NZ take another step toward biofuels

There are good reasons why Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are pursuing home grown jet grade biofuels in issuing a Request for Information or RFI today in both countries.

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To succeed bio fuels have to work in today's jets as well as tomorrow's.
To succeed bio fuels have to work in today’s jets as well as tomorrow’s.

There are good reasons why Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are pursuing home grown jet grade biofuels in issuing a Request for Information or RFI today in both countries.

The major one of course is the need to curb the release of fossil stored carbon through the burning of conventional refined aviation grade kerosene.

But there is also the matter of fuel security in an uncertain world, and the lucrative potential of future rewards from a carbon trading scheme and the halo effect of supporting new agricultural and industrial activities.

The RFI posted by the trans Tasman partners today asks for information by 30 May, and one might surmise that a nice glossy brochure and multi media presentation by messaging merchants isn’t what the airlines have in mind.

The bio fuel blends that have been successfully flown in at least one Qantas demo flight in this country, and hundreds if not low thousands of scheduled flights within Europe, are refined from bio degradable wastes including cast off cooking oils and plants such as the Jatropha bush, which although promising, has so far failed to deliver for a number of reasons.

Australia’s early stage use of ethanol blends with unleaded petrol doesn’t offer an alternative pathway to make an aviation kerosene substitute because the energy density and low temperature characteristics of ethanol blends have not resulted in anything that could replace jet fuels today on a one for one basis by volume.

Virgin and the Kiwis are thus asking a lot and to a tight time frame. But they have those powerful reasons to pursue the answers. Beyond the issue of fuel security in a country that doesn’t refine much of its petroleum products now, and will possibly have zero refining capacity within a few years, there is the global warming problem.

If airline activity does indeed double or treble within 10-20 years, it will have to be able to drastically reduce the release of fossil stored carbon given the widely anticipated political and social demands that will arise from increasingly obvious climatic warming.

Engine technology and more efficient and lighter airframes, whether metal alloy or carbon fibre composites, have all converged to produce far cleaner and greener flight in just a few decades.

But those gains are not being offset by the growth of air travel, largely driven by hundreds of millions of new spenders in Asia, with Latin America and Africa exhibiting strong rates of uptake.

Crunch time is coming, and well run airlines with longer term ambitions for their core businesses know it.

The secrets to making various suitable bio fuel cocktails are apparently now widely practiced.  The barriers to success include the efficiencies and economies of volume, and a reliable source of feedstocks for small bio fuel refineries close to larger airports.

Location is critical. One of few cost levers bio fuels could apply to established offshore sources of refined aviation fuel is cutting out the wasteful business of shipping by tankers, which with crude oil prices depressed, has now become an even larger factor in the cost of delivered fuel.

Bio fuels need to be made where they will be put as directly as possible into the fuel tanks of waiting jets.

Coming in over the top of this is the benefit of carbon trading credits. It is inevitable that carbon will be taxed in one form or another, and provided the trading schemes recognise the difference between carbon that is mined, and carbon that is grown as part of a natural cycle, the benefits of clean technology will be rewarded.

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