Sustainable Biofuels in Aviation
With greenhouse gases and climate change continuing to be in the spotlight, over the past decade aircraft manufacturers have made a number of improvements in aerodynamics and the development of lighter construction materials, all of which make a contribution to fuel efficiency. The Airbus A380 entered service with Singapore Airlines in October 2007, and two months later the CEO noted that the plane dubbed by the media as the Superjumbo was performing beyond the expectations of the airline and the manufacturer, by burning up to 20 percent less fuel per passenger than the Boeing 747-400 aircraft in Singapore Airline’s fleet.
While aerodynamics and composite materials play a role in fuel efficiency, the engines powering the planes hold the key to meaningful fuel savings. Engine manufacturers are also in the position to promote the move to sustainable biofuels. In a recently reported interview, Vice President of technology and environment for US-based engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, Alan H. Epstein, noted that because the aviation industry has made the drop-in fuel concept a reality, the change to sustainable biofuels can be facilitated without compromising engine efficiency or safety. Epstein pointed out that few people are aware of the fact that jet fuel varies significantly around the world, so when refueling at a foreign airport, an airplane will be making use of different fuel, or a blend of its original fuel and the new fuel. Taking this into account, the biofuel that has been tested may be considered to be a better option than petroleum based jet-fuels, but only if the composition of biofuel around the world is uniform.
The current requirement for biofuel is a 50 percent mix with fossil fuels, and while tests have been run with significantly higher concentrations of biofuels, the 50-50 specification is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. With regard to crops for biofuels impacting negatively on food crops, Epstein noted that defining biofuels as “sustainable” means at the very least that its production will not interfere with food production, food prices and water. Conceding that with current technology it would take land the size of Europe to grow biofuels for Europe’s aviation industry, Epstein said that finding ways of making more biofuel in a sustainable way is up to biological technology, not engine or airplane technology, which is already capable of utilizing biofuels efficiently.