Over the past year a consortium made up of Boeing, engine makers and Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines tested several jet fuel blends of up to 50% biofuel. They’re saying that bio fuel is not only good for the airplanes’ carbon footprint – it actually performs as well, if not better, than its petroleum-based equivalent. The issue is a crucial one for the airline industry, which has vowed to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and whose fortunes are tightly tied to the volatile price of crude oil.
The blends were different oil combinations from jatropha, camelina (a fatty mustard-like seed) and algae. The biofuels used in the tests were “drop-in”, which means that engines didn’t require modification. Boeing says the blends didn’t damage the equipment, actually proved to have more power from a greater energy content than standard petroleum jet fuel. That can potentially better fuel economy with some engineering and tuning adjustments.
The environmental crowd should be pleased as well. An executive summary of the consortium’s research says a blend that included jatropha and camelina can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 65% to 80% from standard petroleum-based fuel.
Petroleum-based jet fuels have a freezing point of between –40º and –47º C. The blends freezing point was between –56º and –63º C, much colder than petroleum-based jet fuels. The debate about cold effects may be coming to an end with some standards applied.
Darrin Morgan, Boeing’s director of sustainable biofuels strategy says to satisfy the global aviation industry’s demand with jatropha and camelina requires planting an area the size of Germany. That’s before agronomy, crop and genetic science and hybrid technology is applied.
We’ve looked Jatropha before so lets have a look on the latest about Camelina.
David Shonnard, Robbins Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Tech conducted an analysis of jet fuel made from camelina oil to measure its carbon dioxide emissions over the course of its life cycle, from planting to tailpipe. Getting the environmental issue behinds us Shoddard is reporting camelina could cut jet fuel’s cradle-to-grave carbon emissions by 84 percent – a wee bit better than the Boeing blended fuels test.
Camelina sativa originated in Europe and is a member of the mustard family, along with broccoli, cabbage and canola. Sometimes it’s called false flax or gold-of-pleasure. It thrives in the semi-arid conditions of the Northern Plains; the camelina used in Shonnard’s study was grown in Montana.
Shonnard explains the points, “Jets can’t use oxygenated fuels like ethanol; they have to use hydrocarbon replacements.” The oil from camelina can be converted to a hydrocarbon green jet fuel that meets or exceeds all petroleum jet fuel specifications. “It is almost an exact replacement for fossil fuel,”
Shoddard was actually being paid to analyze the camelina life cycle for UOP LLC, of Des Plaines Ill, a subsidiary of Honeywell who is also a provider of oil refining technology. UOP cited Boeing’s work quoting managing director of environmental strategy Billy Glover who called camelina “one of the most promising sources for renewable fuels that we’ve seen. It performed as well if not better than traditional jet fuel during our test flight with Japan Airlines earlier this year and supports our goal of accelerating the market availability of sustainable, renewable fuel sources that can help aviation reduce emissions. It’s clear from the life cycle analysis that camelina is one of the leading near-term options and, even better, it’s available today.”
Well, it’s available in incredibly small quantities.
Tom Kalnes, senior development associate for UOP in its renewable energy and chemicals research group, used hydro processing, a technology commonly used in the refining of petroleum, to develop a flexible process that converts camelina oil and other biological feedstocks into green jet fuel and renewable diesel fuel. Kalnes says of camelina use, “It depends. There are a few critical issues. The most critical is the price and availability of commercial scale quantities of a second-generation feedstock. Today the costs for camelina, and other second-generation feedstock options like jatropha and algae, remain higher than the cost of crude oil, and there are still only limited amounts available. Further technology development is needed to drive down the costs and ramp up to commercial-scale harvesting. We are seeing great momentum in this area and believe that biofuels made using camelina will be commercially available for blending into the diesel and jet fuel supplies in the next three to five years. This is much sooner than many imagined.”
The barrier is more farmers need to be convinced to grow a new crop, and the fuel refiners must want to process it. Currently even $70 a barrel oil isn’t going to get there.
On the cheery side is camelina needs little water or nitrogen to flourish, it can be grown on marginal agricultural lands. Shoddard says, “Unlike ethanol made from corn or biodiesel made from soy, it won’t compete with food crops, and it may be used as a rotation crop for wheat, to increase the health of the soil.”
A few years ago camelina was a northern plains weed subjected to control and efforts to limit its range. Today there isn’t much information of credible background to say what the improved yields of oil per land area would be. But the plant’s zone of growth limits its range without improvements. Just what improvements might do, say triple or quintuple the yield, camelina might very well make a bright future for those who grow it.
We’ve learned from corn ethanol that mandates from government can form an industry from nothing and that time and events have driven that business right into the petroleum industry’s camp. Experienced petroleum companies will do a lot of ethanol production from now on.
Improving camelina and jatropha can make a huge difference. As noted above the area required for such agricultural production to cover global air travel would need an area about the size of Germany or in a few years, about a third of that – or less. The key though is that air travel could contract for bio fuel – so leveling out the peaks and valleys of the crude of market not only for themselves, but everyone else as well.