Are biofuels best suited to air travel?

We pay a lot of attention to biofuels' potential in the auto industry, but the aviation industry could be their ideal market. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
A Russian plane carrying emergency aid arrives at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. The aviation industry is gearing up to a very real push toward biofuels.

Given how familiar most of us are with cars, it's easy to see them as the be-all and end-all when it comes to cleaning up transportation. Reduce fossil fuels, increase electric propulsion, increase use of biofuels, job done.

With over a billion cars on roads around the world improving them is clearly a priority, but other industries are seeking alternatives to conventional fossil fuels too, one of which is the aviation industry.

And as aviation gears up for a very real push towards biofuels, we ask--is aviation actually the ideal market for such fuels, rather than the car industry?

The latest column from industry analysts Navigant Research suggests it could well be, as a whole supply chain for biofuels builds around it and several airlines begin to incorporate aviation biofuels into their routes.

It isn't just small-time airlines either.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which runs hundreds of European and international routes,opened a biofuel route between the Netherlands and New York earlier this year. While the biofuel is a 50 percent blend with regular fossil fuel kerosene, it's still a long route using 50 percent less fossil fuel than usual.

The fuel itself is provided by SkyNRG, one of the major players in the field. It uses certified sustainable feedstock for biofuel conversion, and ensures protected areas and wildlife habitats are unaffected by the feedstock production.

SkyNRG is also a company behind the 'Bioport' concept, according to Navigant Research. These are regional production hubs condensing the upstream, midstream and downstream components of liquid fuel production.

Not only does it reduce the transport impact of fuel production but also allows them to operate independent of usual fuel supply dynamics and market changes. Schipol Airport in the Netherlands--where KLM is based--and Brisbane Airport in Australia are both 'Bioport' sites, using appropriate available feedstocks and the most relevant conversion technology solutions to work at each site.

London Heathrow too has facilities to convert municipal solid waste into biofuel, and while it came about as the result of a long, expensive process for supplier Solena Fuels, agreements like that can be quickly replicated at airports worldwide.

It's an advantage the aviation industry has over the automotive industry--the ability to set up biofuel production entirely locally to where the aircraft are fueled, significantly reducing cost and improving its environmental credentials. If you can use local produce--such as Brazil's push towards sugarcane-based biofuels, set to power 200 flights during the 2014 soccer World Cup and 20 percent of flights for Rio's 2016 Olympics--it's even better.

We suspect it'd be good for the green-minded individual, too. At the moment, air travel is a surefire way to boost your personal carbon footprint to a huge size.

Take just one flight (particularly a short-haul journey with fewer passengers) and you can negatively offset hundreds of miles of driving in a greener car. But if more of those flights are completed using aviation biofuel--even those 50 percent blends used by KLM--the impact of each journey, and your personal impact, is significantly reduced.

The fuel is still expensive at this stage, but corporate co-partnerships with large and like-minded sponsors (SkyNRG has Nike, Heineken, Philips, and others on its side) are helping co-fund the development costs.

And regular oil prices are going up, at any rate. When that crossover happens, it may happen in a much bigger way for aviation than it will for ground transportation.

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