Statistics reveal that in 2013, airplanes spewed up to 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, and it is estimated that, if left unchecked, this is likely to more than triple by the year 2050. Although many countries make efforts to regulate the emissions of cars and trucks, efforts at regulating the aviation industry have been largely unsuccessful. This is a contentious issue for parties who are monitoring the effect of carbon emissions on climate change, particularly in light of the fact that more people than ever are using airline travel and airfreighting goods around the world becomes more commonplace.
The United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is tasked with drawing up a plan to regulate the global aviation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, but reportedly does not anticipate having this finalized before 2020. The European Union’s attempts to impose CO2 emission taxes on airlines flying through European Union airspace was met with a flood of opposition, halting the proposal in its tracks. Recently the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will be “moving forward with a rulemaking process to propose endangerment and cause or contribute findings regarding aircraft GHG emissions”. ¹
Some airlines are experimenting with biofuels with a measure of success, and this is a potential solution worth pursuing, but airlines need to find ways of burning less of the conventional fuel currently being used. Lighter components in aircraft manufacture, streamlining aircraft designs and developing more efficient engines are ways the aircraft manufacturing industry continues to contribute toward fuel efficiency. By improving routes and timetables, individual airlines can ensure flights are fully utilized and thereby contribute toward fuel efficiency, which from a financial perspective is in their best interests, while at the same time helps in cutting carbon emissions by eliminating under-utilized flights. Surveys of US airlines have shown that the majority are not functioning as efficiently as they could in this regard. It is hoped that the proposed US EPA rules will push airlines to conform to best practices with regard to limiting carbon emissions.
The aviation industry continues to strive to be in the forefront of industries with regard to managing carbon emissions. To this end the industry aims to attain carbon-neutral growth by the year 2020 as laid out in a resolution dubbed “CNG2020”, as well as working toward cutting emission by up to 50% by 2050 in comparison with 2005. Biofuels are expected to play a significant role in meeting these goals as research and development continues to turn up new biofuel options, and Boeing recently announced that it is partnering with South African Airways (SAA) and SkyNRG to produce biofuel for aviation from the seeds of a new tobacco plant hybrid.
The new hybrid, named Solaris, is virtually nicotine-free and has a high seed yield. At this time the biofuel will be made from the seed only, but it is anticipated that with the development of new manufacturing processes, at a future date the entire plant may be used to produce biofuel. In a press release from SAA’s Group Environmental Affairs Specialist, Ian Cruickshank, it was noted that using hybrid tobacco allows the project to draw on the knowledge of South Africa‘s tobacco farmers, while giving them the alternative of growing a product the doesn’t encourage smoking. It is anticipated that the new biofuel will be in use in the next few years.
While it’s been proven that biofuels are workable, many onlookers have noted that price is likely to be an issue in implementing them on a large scale. Nobody is likely to take issue with existing tobacco fields being turned into biofuel producing areas, as is the case with food crops, but the question remains whether tobacco farms will be as economically viable producing biofuel crops. Also, various regions will need to find the biofuel crop that works best for them, for example Saudi Arabia is experimenting with a plant that can be grown in the desert and watered with sea water, while other options are algae-based biofuel, or biofuel generated from discarded cooking oil and other waste. Nevertheless, the focus on biofuel is encouraging as it raises awareness of the need to find viable alternatives to fossil fuels.
With the increasing demand for a cleaner burning aviation fuel obtained from renewable resources, Airbus recently signed a deal at the 9th China International Air Show in Zhuhai, with Chinese natural gas supplier ENN Group to develop alternative fuels, including fuel derived from algae oil. Extracted, processed and refined from algae, algae oil is considered to be one of the most promising biofuel products being developed for the aviation industry. Depending on the results of a Sino-US feasibility study, a test flight using the biofuel will take place in China in 2013. ENN has the capacity to produce more than ten tons of algae oil-based jet fuel annually.
High oil-output algae was initially considered as an alternative to fossil fuels back in 1978, under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted research which tested more than 3,000 different types of algae, the conclusion being that algae oil-based fuel could be used in place of fossil fuels for heating homes and running transportation. But when the gas crisis which had resulted in high prices and long queues at the gas pumps passed, and carbon emissions were not an issue back then, the need for alternative fuels was no longer urgent.
Today, several government agencies and private companies are supporting projects to make the production of algae oil-based fuel more commercially viable. Although harvested algae releases CO2 when burned, the CO2 is reabsorbed by the growing algae. Referred to as ‘algaculture’ the commercial cultivation of algae can be carried out on land that would not have been used for agriculture, so the product is not competing for land that could be used for food crops, which is a concern with some other biofuel products. Other advantages of cultivating algae for fuel are that they can be grown in ocean water as well as certain grades of wastewater. Also, they are biodegradable, burn cleaner and will not pose the same level of risk to the environment as fossil fuels if spilled.
A report by the United States Department of Energy has estimated that to produce sufficient algae-based fuel to replace all the petroleum-based fuel in the United States would only require the equivalent of around 15,000 square miles of land, or 0.42 percent of the United States. But, while space is not a problem, cost is, and this is one of the main issues to be addressed. It’s not so much a question of whether the product can be produced and whether it works, but whether it will be commercially viable.
Showing the company’s commitment to green fuels, Gulfstream flew all five of its display and demonstration airplanes to NBAA 2012 in Orlando on a blend of Jet A and biofuel, a mix that is calculated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 68 percent. Called Honeywell Green Jet Fuel, the biofuel is manufactured from the natural oil extracted from camelina – an inedible and fast-growing member of the mustard family that can tolerate conditions other food crops can’t, or can be grown in rotation with cereal crops, making it a promising biofuel crop. Gulfstream’s aircraft displayed at NBAA 2012 included the G550, G450, G150 and the recently certified Gulfstream G650 and G280.
In a recent press release, Gulfstream noted that the G650 has demonstrated its ability to fly faster and further than any other airplane in the competitive category of business jets. With a range of 6,000 nautical miles at Mach 0.90, the G650 can fly nonstop between a number of high traffic destinations, including between Shanghai and London, and New York and Dubai, completing a 6,000 nm trip in twelve hours. Promoted as the ‘gold standard in business aviation’, the G650’s maximum cruise speed is Mach 0.925, while its Rolls-Royce BR725 engines burn less fuel and produce a lower rate of emissions than competing airplanes currently do. Taller, wider and longer than any other cabin in its class, up to eighteen people can be comfortable accommodated in the G650 cabin, with buyers having the option of twelve floor plans to suit specific needs. Claiming to be the ‘most technologically advanced business aircraft in the sky’, the G650 boasts a host of safety features, including the Head-up Display (HUD) II, Enhanced Vision System (EVS) II™ and the Synthetic Vision-Primary Flight Display (SV-PFD).
Visitors to NBAA 2012 had a chance to view the Gulfstream G280 – a mid-sized jet with the capability of covering a distance of 3,600 nm at Mach 0.80. Providing seating for up to ten passengers in a quiet cabin featuring large windows, the G280 is designed with comfort in mind. The advanced PlaneView280™ cockpit improves safety by decreasing pilot workload and enhancing situational awareness. Other safety features in the cockpit include optional HUD II guidance systems and Enhanced Vision Systems II.
This year’s edition of the International Biofuel Exposition will take place at the Hyatt Hotel in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The exposition has proved to be the perfect launching pad for Embraer who will be showcasing their exciting new Ipanema aircraft at the event. The Inpanema plane is alcohol-powered, so providing a great demonstration of the capabilities of biofuel.
Pratt & Whitney Canada recently announced that it was heading up an aerospace industry-university research effort designed to investigate which biofuels might be potentially used to power small and medium sized aircraft engines. The decision comes in the wake of the new UK biofuel policy review and should ultimately help to prove the feasibility of using biofuels to power aircraft.
Even though Virgin Atlantic has become the first commercial airline to successfully fly a commercial jet that was partially powered by a biofuel mixture of babassu and coconut oil, much debate has been sparked by this spectacular endeavor. Sir Richard Branson, who is the President of the airline, told the press that the flight was a small step towards developing new fuels that could hopefully assist in reducing the carbon emissions that are released into the air by the aviation industry.