Biofuels for aviation: a sustainable solution?

September 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm 1 comment

On a recent AirChinaflight, I saw a short film produced by the airline on the development of biofuels for aviation. 

The film took a detailed look at fossil fuel dependence and strategies to deal with it, including efficiencies and new aviation technology.  It outlined the increasing role of alternatives – renewable energy, electric vehicles, nuclear power, and so on, but stated that none of these solutions will be ready soon enough or useful for aircraft in the near term.  It proposed that biofuels are the one solution for the airline industry and outlined the consortium of companies working on this: Boeing, Air China and Honeywell, to name a few.

Two interesting points occurred to me:

1. The trialling and production of different biofuels are far advanced.  While Europe and Australia have slowed in their embrace of biofuels, China appears to be very active in the development of biodiesel, at least.

2. The issue is complex.  The film explained the carbon cycle and its role in ensuring biofuels are low CO2 emitters.  It referred to Jatropha crops and algae and used the term ‘second generation’ biofuels, which refers to fuel made from waste and dedicated non-food crops.  It also mentioned that these second generation fuels do not compete with food production.  Of course, this may be directly true, but indirectly anything that requires land for production potentially competes with food production.

I find myself conflicted over the biofuels question.

Many LCA results show that biofuels have lower impacts for fuel depletion and greenhouse gases (although the latter is by no means guaranteed) but higher impacts for land and water. 

It is interesting that with all the development of modern society and concerns over chemicals, radiation and depleting mineral resources, the main stressor is likely to be the same one we’ve faced for thousands of years – land productivity, represented by the combined resources of soil, water and sunlight.  The problem is exacerbated as we move towards an era in which historical reserves of this productivity – fossil fuels, are either scarce or limited by the biosphere’s ability to cope with increased CO2 released from the long-term store.

There are few solutions, however.  And here I am on a flight as one of the world’s many consumers of international air travel.  I am on my way to an environment conference and two related meetings in Europe, which will be very valuable but perhaps not essential.  If the full cost of the flights including carbon, pollution and fuel production impacts were taken into account, then perhaps the trip would be more expensive.  At the very least, that might make alternatives, such as online meetings, a more likely option.

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The reality of marginal suppliers Time for life cycle science to stand up

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lawana Carriaga  |  April 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm

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