Etihad Airways says 100% Biofuel Flights Within Five Years

by Nathan

The United-Arab-Emirates-based aviation heavyweight Etihad Airways will soon be offering regular 100%-biofuel-powered commercial flights throughout the region, according to recent comments made by Chief Operations Officer Richard Hill.

Biofuel flights using 100% biofuel are less than 5 years away, says Etihad Airways.
Biofuel flights using 100% biofuel are less than 5 years away, says Etihad Airways. Image Credit: Airplane taking off via Shutterstock

This strong push towards greater biofuel-use by the airline is being supported by the creation of the new BIOjet Abu Dhabi project — a partnership with the French energy firm Total, and the world-renowned aircraft-producer Boeing, with the aim of developing aviation biofuels in the United Arab Emirates.

The new project was announced at a recent press conference celebrating the success of a recent UAE-produced-bio-kerosene-powered flight (partly powered with biofuels, not fully) — the first such flight.

The 45-minute flight was the latest step towards operating commercial flights using biofuels. — Chief operations officer at Etihad, Richard Hill

He also stated that he expected the first of such commercial flights to be offered within the next five years.

Working with Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy company Masdar, the group intends to develop a supply chain that will bring aviation biofuel production and refining capabilities to the oil-rich nation.

Masdar is currently developing salt-tolerant plants that could provide the raw material for the renewable fuel. It is hoped that species such as salicornia could be grown in coastal areas, allowing for large scale production of energy crops that could be grown without impacting scarce water supplies in the region.

However, agricultural waste and date palm leaves are also being considered as potential feed stocks for the project. Creating fuel from sustainable sources would help Etihad curb its carbon emissions, the company said.

In collaboration with our key partners, our goal is to support and help drive the commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuel in Abu Dhabi, the region and also globally.

We have made some important first steps in this process and our continued focus will be to develop further initiatives such as this which will facilitate the availability of sustainable aviation biofuels for Etihad Airways in the coming years. — James Hogan, president and chief executive of Etihad

For more backstory on this breakthrough, check out: Boeing Biofuel Breakthrough — This Is A BIG Deal (Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director).

This article, Biofuel Flights Within Five Years, Says Head Of Etihad Airways, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Nathan — For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 3:19

Biofuel Breakthrough! Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director

by Zachary Shahan

Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing
Biofuel from desert plants is the biofuel story of the decade, says Boeing

On the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week* European energy journalist Karel Beckman, university biologist Joanne Manaster, and I got to have a conversation with a member of Boeing leadership who has been working on what seems to be a genuine breakthrough in the biofuel arena, and in the energy arena in general. There are a few very exciting things about the development, and some super interesting side notes, so take your time and be sure to read this piece carefully!

I’ve summarized all the key points in text below, but also included at the bottom of this article is an audio recording of the entire conversation we had with Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing. Thanks to Karel for kindly sharing that, and thanks to Darrin for allowing us to record him.

Biofuels Backstory

First of all, let me say that I have hardly covered biofuels in the past couple of years because I more or less gave up on them as a genuinely sustainable and cost-competitive near-term solution to our climate, pollution, and resource scarcity crises. Algae biofuels look like they won’t be cost competitive until the mid to late 2020s at the earliest, if ever. Meanwhile, cellulosic biofuels seem to have many of the same critical drawbacks as first-generation biofuels.

Two of the biggest drawbacks of conventional (1st-generation) and cellulosic biofuels are that they require a tremendous amount of freshwater and arable land for their production. These resources are basic necessities of human life. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply for over a billion people.

The new biofuel Boeing and partners have developed skirts those issues completely. But I’ll get back to that after another interesting backstory, one I was not aware of.

Oil Problems… Including Problems For Airliners

While the biofuel backstory is pretty well-known, some important parts of the oil backstory are new to me, and surely many or all of you. We all know that burning oil for energy is a leading cause of globe warming, that oil security issues and wars are a major harm to society, and that oil resource scarcity and price spikes are also a continuous threat to society. All of these issues alone would have companies like Boeing looking for a sustainable, cost-competitive fuel alternative. But something else also has Boeing looking for an alternative to petroleum — the quality of today’s oil supply.

Unconventional oil production from tar sands and shale oil have boosted US and global oil production just as conventional oil fields have have been running dry. However, a variety of chemicals are used in these more complicated and dirtier production processes. Boeing and other air transport companies have found that the chemicals in these unconventional oils cause problems for their engines. They reduce efficiency and lead to other complications. You might think that Boeing and its colleagues in the airline industry could convince oil companies to work on solutions to these problems, but according to Darrin (who I’ll remind you is the director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing), in the grand scheme of things, airline companies aren’t a big enough portion of oil companies’ business in order to get that attention.

So, along with the typical concerns that come from burning oil, Boeing has been looking for a sustainable solution that will also perform better. Interestingly, counter to the early hype, Darrin noted that biofuels actually burn very cleanly and would be preferred over petroleum from a performance perspective.

Naturally, oil companies have not been big supporters of a switch to biofuels. Boeing and others in the air transport industry, however, eventually decided that they wanted to research ways that they could genuinely move beyond oil. As a result, in 2008, they created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. That seems to have been the seed of the biofuel breakthrough discussed below.

Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Biofuel from halophytes, a type of desert plant, undergoing testing by Boeing.
Boeing’s Biofuel Breakthrough

In recent years, Boeing has “happened across” a new type of biofuel, a biofuel with some amazing natural benefits. First of all, the biofuel comes from a type of plant — halophytes — that can grow in the desert, not taking up valuable arable land. Furthermore, these halophytes can be irrigated with saltwater, again solving one of the main downsides of conventional biofuels — their tremendous freshwater needs. For these reasons and others, it seems that halophyte biofuels can be produced at a low, competitive cost.

Notably, this big discovery wasn’t made purely by accident. Several years ago, when Boeing decided that it wanted to find a better fuel source than oil or conventional biofuels, it aimed to find a fuel that was genuinely sustainable. It didn’t want to run into the problems with powerful stakeholders or the environment that corn ethanol ran into. Sustainability was the focus all the way down to design. When Boeing ran across the possibility of creating biofuel from these unique halophytes, back in 2009, it found that there were actually no patents related to such a process (globally). Can you imagine the feeling? Boeing then started the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi, partnering with Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, and Honeywell’s UOP to work on researching the biofuel’s potential.

News has gotten even better since then, in a couple of ways:

1) Aquaculture has been growing worldwide as a solution to rapidly declining fish stocks in open waters. However, aquaculture comes with at least one big problem — it produces a tremendous waste stream. Interestingly, halophytes, can actually use aquaculture waste as a feedstock.

2) A key process in creating biofuel from cellulosic plants is separating the lignin from the sugars (the sugars are what get converted into fuel). About six months ago, Boeing and crew (corny pun intended) discovered that this process was actually much easier with halophytes than it was with other cellulosic plants used for biofuel.

Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Biofuel production via sustainable aquaculture, silviculture and agriculture methods.
Next Steps

Science is all fun and games, of course, but the real question is: what’s the cost? Can this halophyte biofuel play in the big leagues? The expectation is that it really can, and within just 4-5 years.

A pilot facility (a couple hectares in size) is being built in Abu Dhabi for testing that will start in 2015. That testing is supposed to go on for about 2 years, but if all goes well, a larger facility (500 hectares in size) could go up before that first test period is finished — in 1–3 years. Optimistically, commercial production (thousands and thousands of hectares) would start soon after — perhaps 4–5 years from now, according to Darrin.

Just to clarify, I asked if this biofuel would be cost-competitive at that time. Indeed, that is the expectation.

Biggest Biofuel Breakthrough To Date?

Darrin’s concluding remark in our short time together seems on the money to me: “This, to me, is the biggest breakthrough that there is out there.” (In biofuels, that is.)

By the way, while the biofuel is being developed by members of the airline industry, the vision is that it will also be useful for ground transport.

Stay tuned — I’m soon going to dig into this story a bit more in a video interview with Darrin. If you have any questions you want me to ask at that time, drop them in the comments below!

Also recommended:

Boeing Discovers Promising Biofuel At $3 Per Gallon

Biofuel from Desert Plants Set to Clean Up Aviation

New Initiative To Grow Jet Biofuel Supply Chain In UAE; Focus On Research, Feedstock Production And Refining Capability

Image Credits: Masdar Institute

*Full disclosure: Masdar covered my trip to Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Keep up to date with my coverage from throughout the week on our Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week channel. Never miss a cleantech beat by subscribing to our overall cleantech newsletter.

This article, Boeing Biofuel Breakthrough — This Is A BIG Deal (Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director), is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Zachary ShahanZachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.