Could Algae Fuel Your Next Flight?: Boeing Tests Biofuel’s Potential

Biofuel could reduce airlines' carbon emissions, but does it have enough thrust to get off the ground?

Your cross-country commute could become more sustainable in the next five years. Since the Kyoto Protocol took effect in 2005, the transportation sector has been adopting new standards in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the key cause of climate change. However, the airline industry has lagged behind. Aircrafts contribute to 2% of all the world’s carbon emissions and this number is expected to increase as the industry grows.[1] A new regulation introduced February 8, 2016 by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) proposed the first standards for carbon dioxide emissions for aircraft worldwide. According to the White House, if adopted, these regulations would “reduce carbon emissions by 650 million tons between 2020 and 2040, equivalent to removing 140 million cars from the road for a year.”[2] In order to reduce carbon emissions, some airlines have been experimenting with using various forms of biofuel which can reduce emissions by 50%-80%. Biofuel is attractive because it comes from a variety of sources and can be combined with conventional fuel. Boeing has been on the forefront of this movement, funding research on different forms of biofuel in six locations around the world. In 2011, United Airlines was the first commercial flight to use 40% biofuel made from algae. That same year, Alaska Airlines also began to experiment with biofuel made from cooking oil.[3] In January of 2016, Sea-Tac, in partnership with Boeing and Alaska Airlines, became the first U.S. airport to lay out a long-term roadmap for using biofuel in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Their goal is to incorporate biofuel into all flight operations by 2020.[4]

Headwinds

Despite the promise biofuel holds for the airline industry, the supply chain is not yet set-up to support the industry’s demand. As of 2016, the industry only had enough factories to produce 100 million gallons of fuel which is less than 0.1% of the total amount of fuel airlines consume each year.[5] The main cause of this shortfall is record-low investments in the industry. Producing biofuel at scale requires tremendous capital expenditures in plants and new technologies. Several companies including Boeing and United Airlines have invested in new biofuel refineries in anticipation of future needs.[6] However, to date, airlines’ incipient demand has not been enough to fuel major investments from those outside the industry. If the UN’s ICAO proposal passes, there will be additional pressure on airlines to begin sourcing alternative sources of fuel which could draw in additional investors.

Source: Bloomberg
Exhibit 1: Biofuel investment over the past decade. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Ready to Take Flight?

Due to the variety of sources of biofuel, there is potential to establish supply chains around airports using biofuels that are indigenous to that region.[7] For example, Boeing has partnered with Etihad Airways near Abu Dhabi International Airport to cultivate Salicornia, a plant that can grow in salt-water, which has the potential to produce biofuel.[8] Tapping into regional biofuel producers could be a boon for local economies. However, in order for biofuel to become a viable alternative source of energy within the airline industry there needs to be a coordinated effort between the public and private sector. Boeing, along with airlines including United and Alaskan, have been spearheading this initiative. In addition to their research initiatives, Boeing as an industry leader should lobby the UN ICAO, the FAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to hasten the timeline for other airlines to integrate biofuel into their operations in significant quantities. They should also launch a public relations campaign around the potential of biofuel to encourage investment outside the industry. Biofuel has the potential to create a more sustainable airline industry, it just needs some thrust to get off the ground.

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For more on the salicornia plant: http://www.boeing.com/features/2016/03/bca-seawater-energy-03-16.page

[1] Harvey, Chelsea. “United Airlines Is Flying on Biofuels. Here’s Why That’s a Really Big Deal.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[2] Mooney, Chris. “U.N. Panel Proposes Historic Cuts to Aircraft Emissions — but Environmentalists Say It’s Not Enough.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 8 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[3] Nicas, Jack. “Airlines Test Biofuels but Costs Are Hurdle.” WSJ. Wsj.com, 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[4] “Boeing; Alaska Airlines; Port of Seattle; Port of Seattle Partners with Alaska Airlines and Boeing on Plan to Supply Sustainable Aviation Biofuel at Sea-Tac Airport.” Journal of Transportation, 2016., pp. 112http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1751256611?accountid=11311.

[5] Ryan, Joe. “Airline Low-Carbon Future Needs Fuel Nobody Makes in Volume.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 3 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[6] Sims, B. (2015, 01). Ready For Take Off. Fuel, , 60-66. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1645903563?accountid=11311

[7] Nicas, Jack. “Airlines Test Biofuels but Costs Are Hurdle.” WSJ. Wsj.com, 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[8] Flick, John. “Super Plants” Could Lead to Biofuel Breakthrough. Boeing, 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

 

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6 thoughts on “Could Algae Fuel Your Next Flight?: Boeing Tests Biofuel’s Potential

  1. Very interesting to see that the trend of using biofuel now starts in the aviation industry. It’s a hopefully promising technology. For me there are several questions, which come to my mind, when I think about using biofuel from algae. Where does the biofuel come from? And which impact does the harvesting of algae has on human beings and our environment? Is there a special way of harvesting algae so that biofuel for aviation engines can be produced? Hard to imagine how much algae need to be harvested in order to fuel so many airplanes.

    I wonder whether there is a certain space on our planet, in which the production of algae is. I am sure it will not be in our industrial nations, but more in the poorer regions in our world. It would be interesting to see which impact this new business has on the economies and whether established industries are forced out in order to have enough space available. Another interesting questions is, what happens with the oceans, the fish and the fishers. I am certain that with these developments agriculture will change in the future too and certain chemicals will play a role in the harvesting process.

    Overall, I am quite curious about the development and progress of using biofuel for the aviation sector. Is it sustainable for human beings and the environment, who will benefit from that trend and who will suffer? Hopefully we will find out in the near future.

  2. Very interesting. I read a bit more about biofuels and according to Wikipedia they are different from fossil fuels in regard to greenhouse gases but are similar to fossil fuels in that biofuels contribute to air pollution. Another interesting controversy around biofuels seems to be “food versus fuel” – the risk of diverting farmland or crops for biofuels production to the detriment of the food supply (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_vs._fuel).

  3. As your figure aptly points out, investment/interest/etc for biofuels was highest about 10 years ago and we don’t hear much about them anymore. There were a couple of chemical engineering competitions when I was an undergrad (ex ChemE Car, National Design Competition) that awarded extra points / special groupings for biofuel projects. I recently checked if those were still part of the competition and it looks like they were removed a few years ago.

    While biofuels were a noble idea, I think the algae to fuel yield is remarkably low. The density of algae required on water surfaces could affect the amount of light reaching various depths of water which would then affect the ecosystems below the surface of the water.

    There are other non-plant based biofuels (i.e. excess cooking oil, corn ethanol) that could be used instead of algae-based fuel. But these biofuels have their own other logistical issues.

    I like the idea of using something other than traditional jet fuel to power planes. I just don’t see it coming from biofuels.

  4. Very interesting read – I am struck by the magnitude that using various biofuels can reduce emissions (50-80%!) versus the incredible minimal investment undergone to push innovation in this area forward. Unfortunately, even though making a change seems like a no-brainer wearing an environmentalist hat, a solid (and profitable) business reason will be the only avenue to make change. As we often discuss in class, large corporations drive operations and profit with the goal of increasing shareholder value, and making a losing investment will not be enticing. With this in mind, I fear that major advancements to reduce emissions has to start from a regulatory framework as you mentioned at the end of the article. It seems like partners like United Airlines and Alaska Airlines would be perfect for Boeing to form a group and push for an industry-wide change by teaming up together. Hopefully we will see forward progress on this in the near future – as it seems to hold a huge potential for impact!

  5. Very interesting article. A couple of months ago I read something in line, as All Nippon Airways, Japan’s biggest airlines was spending around US$ 25mm to research and test algae as fuel. This is certainly the kind of trend that we would like to happened more and more in the future, as every form of fuel should come from sustainable sources and algae seems to be very sustainable one. But thinking on how much supply of algae we would need in order to satisfy all the energy needs in the aviation industry makes me look at it with a little bit of skepticism.
    Are all the algae in the sea useful to produce energy? Actually the answer of this question is no, as there are some good algae but also some toxic algae, which cannot be used to produce energy. In addition, trying to grow them in nature can lead to difficult situations as apparently algae can suck oxygen out of the water, making an uninhabitable environment for underwater life, hence, the only alternative would be to grow it in a more controlled environment.
    Having said that, is there there any cheap way to mass-produce algae? From what I understand, production of algae is still very expensive, so I guess this is one of the big challenges that algae production have nowadays, if researchers can find which energy-rich, non-toxic algae types are best and how to grow those specific types quickly, they can scale that up to mass production.

    http://gizmodo.com/why-algae-could-be-the-greatest-and-trickiest-fuel-sour-1744514937

  6. Interesting article! I had heard about algae biofuel applications for ethanol production, such as the technology at Algenol, but this is the first time I have seen applications for jet fuel in particular [1]. I definitely agree with your point regarding the need for public and private sector involvement, since it is a highly capital-intensive endeavor that relies on technological improvements and infrastructure. When I looked into biofuels for jet fuel, I came across an interesting DARPA initiative that was seeking to reduce the military’s dependence on petroleum-based fuels and was providing funding for a few companies for research in developing biofuels based on algae and cellulosic feedstocks [2]. There seemed to be some initial success, with a 2010 article stating that the effort was being scaled-up to large-scale refining for less than $3 a gallon [3]. However, this initial success did not seem to last as the effort has been closed out by DARPA and there haven’t been any more recent news regarding progress in this endeavor [2]. It begs the question if there are technological gaps of scaling-up this operation, or if the economics at scale don’t work out favorably. It also begs the question of the role of government initiatives to coordinate these types of big picture long-term endeavors to optimize the investments being made in this space. i.e. coordinating across industries that have value for this technology versus independent and possibly duplicative research efforts.

    [1] http://algenol.com/biofuelproducts/
    [2] McQuade, T. Biofuels (Archived). Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Accessed from: http://www.darpa.mil/program/biofuels.
    [3] Algae to solve the Pentagon’s jet fuel problem. The Guardian. Accessed from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/feb/13/algae-solve-pentagon-fuel-problem.

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