BIO-FUEL TECH­NOL­OGY — FU­TURE OF POWER

With the grow­ing alarm and aware­ness of de­plet­ing fos­sil fu­els and con­cerns re­gard­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, the mar­ket for al­ter­na­tive fu­els for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try is ex­pected to grow sig­nif­i­cantly

SP's Airbuz - - Table Of Contents - BY A. K. SACHDEV

INAR­GUABLY, AN AIR­CRAFT’S MOST cru­cial con­stituent is its power plant. Since the first heav­ier-than-air flight by the Wright broth­ers, power plant tech­nol­ogy has evolved dra­mat­i­cally and, in re­cent years, the pace of ad­vance­ment has been ac­cel­er­at­ing. The ma­te­ri­als used and the de­sign pro­gres­sion have en­sured that each suc­ces­sive model is an im­prove­ment in terms of thrust pro­duced. How­ever, one area in which orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers (OEMs) of power plants have not been able to make sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance­ments is the fuel used. Fos­sil fuel re­mains the main source of en­ergy for power plants although in re­cent years, there have been no­table in­tent and en­deav­our to­wards re­place­ment of the fos­sil fuel. Two mo­ti­va­tions ap­pear to have been the im­pel­lors in this di­rec­tion: firstly the re­al­i­sa­tion that fos­sil fu­els are ir­re­place­able and fi­nite and need to be sub­sti­tuted by al­ter­na­tive fu­els and se­condly, the stim­u­lus of re­duc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of fuel com­bus­tion and the re­sul­tant pol­lu­tants dis­charged into an al­ready sul­lied at­mos­phere. Bio-fu­els are the al­ter­na­tive fu­els that the avi­a­tion world is look­ing at ex­pec­tantly, but, while there is ad­e­quate ad­vance­ment in bio-fuel tech­nolo­gies to nur­ture hope of bio-fu­els edg­ing out fos­sil fu­els in the fu­ture, even the most op­ti­mistic view does not en­vis­age the change to oc­cur in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture.

This ar­ti­cle looks at bio-fuel tech­nolo­gies to as­sess whether and when it could oc­cur. THE BA­SICS. Avi­a­tion in­dus­try’s com­mit­ment to re­duc­ing Green­house Gas (CHG) emis­sions along with the bur­den of in­creas­ing oil prices, is forc­ing it to look for sources of re­new­able and af­ford­able en­ergy. Avi­a­tion is a type of trans­porta­tion for which tra­di­tional bio-fu­els such as bio-ethanol and bio-diesel, do not ful­fil the spe­cific re­quire­ments. Hence the need to re­fine bio­fuel re­search and fine tune it to avi­a­tion re­quire­ments.

Bio-fu­els are de­rived from bi­o­log­i­cal sources (an­i­mal fats or oils ex­tracted from veg­eta­bles) and can in­clude avi­a­tion fu­els suit­able for air­craft en­gines of three broad cat­e­gories namely pis­ton en­gines, tur­bo­prop en­gines and jet en­gines. The bulk of re­quire­ment for avi­a­tion fuel is for the highly thirsty jet en­gines which con­sume huge quan­ti­ties of fuel. Re­plac­ing or sup­ple­ment­ing jet fuel with suit­able bio-fuel would thus re­sult in sub­stan­tial sav­ings of cost as also would help in cut­ting down un­de­sir­able emis­sions from jet en­gines. The tech­nol­ogy as­so­ci­ated with this is ‘white’ biotech­nol­ogy which em­ploys nat­u­ral pro­cesses (ba­si­cally use of en­zymes) for in­dus­trial man­u­fac­tur­ing. In con­trast, red biotech­nol­ogy is re­lated to med­i­cal and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prod­ucts while green biotech­nol­ogy is rel­e­vant to agri­cul­ture. White biotech­nol­ogy is con­sid­ered a ma­jor tech­nol­ogy of the 21st cen­tury inas­much as it of­fers ad­van­tages over tra­di­tional chem­istry through lower en­ergy costs as­so­ci­ated with its pro­cesses, elim­i­na­tion of com­plex syn­thetic meth­ods and ex­ploita­tion of re­new­able and sus­tain­able re­sources.

The Amer­i­can So­ci­ety for Test­ing and Ma­te­ri­als (ASTM) has cer­ti­fied four dif­fer­ent tech­no­log­i­cal routes for pro­duc­tion of bio­jet fu­els. Gasi­fi­ca­tion through the Fis­cher-Trop­sch method (FT), us­ing mu­nic­i­pal solid waste (MSW) or woody biomass as feed­stock was cer­ti­fied by ASTM in 2009. Hy­dropro­cessed Es­ters and Fatty Acids (HEFA bio-jet), us­ing oleo­chem­i­cal feed­stocks such as oil and fats was cer­ti­fied by ASTM in 2011. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for Syn­the­sised Iso-Paraf­finic fu­els (SIP), for­merly known as the di­rect sug­ars-to-hy­dro­car­bon route ( far­ne­sane) came in 2014 while Al­co­hol-to-jet based on isobu­tanol (ATJ), cer­ti­fied in 2016.

Cur­rently, HEFA bio-jet holds the lion’s share of avail­able com­mer­cial vol­umes of bio-jet fu­els and a num­ber of com­mer­cial scale fa­cil­i­ties can pro­duce it. How­ever, the same process also cre­ates re­new­able diesel (HEFA-diesel), for which there is a larger mar­ket and higher profit mar­gins. Un­der­stand­ably, pro­duc­tion is tilted to­wards HEFA-diesel and away from HEFA-jet. HEFA-diesel is also known as green diesel or hy­dro-treated re­new­able diesel. The op­er­a­tional ca­pac­ity of the world’s cur­rent HEFA fa­cil­i­ties is es­ti­mated to be about 4.3 bil­lion litres per year. Even if all of this ca­pac­ity were to be di­rected to pro­duce bio-jet, the to­tal sup­ply would still amount to less than 1.5 per cent of the world’s jet fuel re­quire­ments. Although bio-jet biomass through gasi­fi­ca­tion and sub­se­quent FT con­ver­sion is not yet a com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, it is ex­pected to pick up mo­men­tum. Mean­while, the de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of bio-jet fu­els, pri­mar­ily HEFA bio-jet, is pro­gress­ing from sin­gle demon­stra­tion flights by air­lines and OEMs to multi-stake­holder sup­ply-chain ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers, air­lines, fuel pro­duc­ers and air­ports. THE ECO­NOM­ICS. The cost of pro­duc­ing bio-jet fuel is the sin­gle ma­jor rea­son for the cur­rent minis­cule size of its avail­abil­ity and us­age. HEFA bio-jet fuel con­tin­ues to cost much more than fos­sil de­rived jet fu­els. Palm de­rived bio-fuel costs nearly dou­ble the price of fos­sil based fuel. More­over, the motivation for pro­duc­ing diesel fu­els out­weighs that for jet fu­els as most gov­ern­ments sub­sidise the for­mer due to its ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional econ­omy while jet fu­els are not viewed as a ne­ces­sity. The view that those who can af­ford air travel can af­ford to pay the higher price of fos­sil fu­els, is also a fac­tor that pos­si­bly in­hibits a faster growth of bio-jet fu­els. The In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ICAO) has reached an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment on a global mar­ket-based mea­sure (GMBM) scheme that aims at re­duc­ing avi­a­tion-de­rived car­bon emis­sions through off­set in­cen­tivi­sa­tion. How­ever, im­ple­men­ta­tion is not ex­pected to be­gin un­til 2021 and emis­sions from air­craft be­long­ing to some mem­ber na­tions, es­pe­cially the de­vel­op­ing ones, are un­likely to be mean­ing­fully reg­u­lated in the near fu­ture. While car­bon off­sets will con­trib­ute to global emis­sions re­duc­tions, the role they will play in fur­ther­ing the cause of bio-jet de­vel­op­ment is a bit doubt­ful un­less com­pre­hen­sive and strict pol­icy guide­lines re­lated to bio-jet pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion are put into place by mem­ber na­tions as well as ICAO.

There is also the prob­lem of a de­bate that fre­quently be­comes loud about feed­stock ver­sus bio-fuel pro­duc­tion. This de­bate serves to slow down the pace of bio-fuel pro­gres­sion. None­the­less, a sig­nif­i­cant his­toric flight took place in Jan­uary this year when the world’s first US-Aus­tralia bio-fuel flight on a Qan­tas Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner took off filled with 24,000 kg of mus­tard seed-based, blended fuel. It flew from Los An­ge­les to Mel­bourne, us­ing bio-fuel ex­tracted from a mus­tard seed Bras­sica Car­i­nata ex­tracted through a process de­vel­oped by Agri­soma Bio­sciences, a Cana­dian agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy com­pany. CON­CLU­SION. Civil avi­a­tion ac­counts for a sub­stan­tial amount of the to­tal en­ergy con­sumed in trans­porta­tion an­nu­ally. With the grow­ing alarm and aware­ness of de­plet­ing fos­sil fu­els and con­cerns re­gard­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, the mar­ket for al­ter­na­tive fu­els for the avi­a­tion in­dus­try is ex­pected to grow sig­nif­i­cantly in the near fu­ture. Bio-fu­els are the lead­ing edge of this growth as far as avi­a­tion in­dus­try is con­cerned. Over the years, var­i­ous coun­tries have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with bio-fu­els in the form of blended fu­els i.e. bio-fuel and jet fuel in or­der to curb their emis­sion rates and pos­si­bly cut costs in the long run. Favourable gov­ern­ment norms are ex­pected to aid this high growth rate. The key play­ers of global avi­a­tion al­ter­na­tive fuel markets are So­lazyme, Honey­well UOP, Im­perium Re­new­ables, Re­new­able En­ergy Group and Aquaflow Bio­nomic Cor­po­ra­tion. The global avi­a­tion al­ter­na­tive fuel mar­ket is pro­jected to grow at a CAGR of four per cent in the pe­riod 2017 to 2023. This fig­ure is dis­mal, but the des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion as far as fos­sil fuel re­serves are con­cerned, will prob­a­bly ac­cel­er­ate the growth of bio-fu­els in avi­a­tion. The fact that bio-fu­els are the fu­ture of power gen­er­a­tion in avi­a­tion, is cer­tain; how­ever, the time hori­zon over which it will out­weigh fos­sil fu­els, is in­de­ter­mi­nate.

THE FACT THAT BIO-FU­ELS ARE THE FU­TURE OF POWER GEN­ER­A­TION IN AVI­A­TION, IS CER­TAIN; HOW­EVER, THE TIME HORI­ZON OVER WHICH IT WILL OUT­WEIGH FOS­SIL FU­ELS, IS IN­DE­TER­MI­NATE

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