Manila Bulletin

Avi­a­tion takes baby steps to­ward sus­tain­able fu­els


MON­TREAL (AFP) – The air trans­porta­tion sec­tor is turn­ing slowly to­ward sus­tain­able fu­els as part of the global fight against cli­mate change.

But adop­tion has been de­layed due to a lack of in­cen­tives and low oil prices.

"It's very ur­gent to de­velop these al­ter­na­tive fu­els," said Michel Wachen­heim of the In­ter­na­tional Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil of Aero­space In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tions (ICCAIA).

"There is no rea­son to be sat­is­fied with the sit­u­a­tion."

De­spite an ex­pected in­crease in air­line traf­fic, the avi­a­tion in­dus­try is the first com­mer­cial sec­tor to com­mit it­self to lim­it­ing car­bon emis­sions within 20 years, through a bind­ing mech­a­nism.

But to achieve that goal, the in­dus­try must look at a va­ri­ety of op­tions.

Even par­tially re­plac­ing jet fuel with sus­tain­able bio­fu­els can make an im­pact. That is one of the four op­tions fa­vored by the In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (ICAO), which con­vened a panel of ex­perts on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day in Mon­treal to ad­dress the dilemma.

Lighter, more fuel-ef­fi­cient air­craft, op­ti­mized flight plans, or turn­ing off jet en­gines while on the tar­mac also would help to cut emis­sions.

But meet­ing the 20-year com­mit­ment will re­quire wide­spread adop­tion of al­ter­na­tive fu­els that pro­duce less car­bon emis­sions over their life cy­cle than jet fuel pro­duced from petroleum.

The ul­ti­mate goal is to make a fuel-equiv­a­lent to jet fuel, but those pro­cesses still are un­der devel­op­ment or at an early stage of in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion.

Hy­dro-treated oils, a process of con­vert­ing gases into hy­dro­car­bons, or fer­men­ta­tion pro­cesses such as the one be­ing done by biotech Amyris with French oil firm To­tal, pro­duce sus­tain­able bio­fu­els, ac­cord­ing to the ex­perts gath­ered at the ICAO.

These fu­els are made from biomass such as starches, sug­ars, oils and lig­no­cel­lu­lose – in other words, plants. The use of sea­weed is still in the re­search stage.

Nate Brown, in charge of the US Federal Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion's al­ter­na­tive jet fuel ini­tia­tive, said more work needs to be done be­fore reach­ing large-scale pro­duc­tion.

In ad­di­tion to com­ing up with al­ter­na­tive fu­els with "equiv­a­lent safety-per­for­mance," the costs must be com­pa­ra­ble to that of con­ven­tional fuel, he said.

A re­li­able sup­ply is cru­cial for air­lines, and proven en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits also are key, he said.

With prices for con­ven­tional fuel re­main­ing low over the past three years, due to low crude oil prices, energy com­pa­nies do not have an in­cen­tive to in­vest bil­lions of dol­lars in new tech­nolo­gies.

But even so, this year 25 air­lines will op­er­ate more than 5,000 flights us­ing jet fuel mixed with sus­tain­able al­ter­na­tive fu­els – up to 50 per­cent in the case of hy­dro-treated oils – on a trial ba­sis.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials say there also will to be a need for stronger po­lit­i­cal will world wide to en­cour­age the use of al­ter­na­tive fu­els.

Ger­ard Os­theimer a sci­en­tist with Sus­tain­able Energy For All (Se4all), launched by the United Na­tions, a higher price per ton of car­bon could be one of the levers that would push devel­op­ment of these bio­fu­els.

In ad­di­tion, "We must put in place poli­cies that re­ward (us­ing) fu­els with re­duced car­bon in­ten­sity."

At their last tri­en­nial assem­bly, the 191 ICAO mem­ber states adopted a global mech­a­nism for off­set­ting emis­sions from in­ter­na­tional avi­a­tion and the ob­jec­tive by 2035 of, at worst, main­tain­ing emis­sions at 2019 or 2020 lev­els.

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