With Air Traffic on the Upswing, Global – and Indian – Interest Picks up in Aviation Biofuels

Bio-jet fuel is generally two- to seven-times more expensive than conventional fossil-derived jet fuels but can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60-70%.

Credit: skeeze/pixabay

Credit: skeeze/pixabay

The past decade has witnessed a heightened use of clean energy, accompanied by a shift away from fossil fuels. The aviation industry has witnessed the same trends: in 2009, it became the first commercial sector to commit to limiting carbon emissions within 20 years, through a binding mechanism.

People in this industry are looking for ways to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint – one of which is the production and widespread use of biofuels. Anjan Ray, the director of the Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), a lab of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Dehradun, told The Wire that biofuels have a much less negative impact on the environment compared to fossil fuels in use today, being able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% to 70%.

“In aircrafts, there is no chance of using oxygenates. The biofuel to be blended must look, feel and perform just like standard, fossil derived aviation turbine fuel [ATF],” Ray explained. “This has brought along a new category of fuels – renewable hydrocarbons – and given the biofuels industry a new lease of life.”

These fuels are produced by treating low-value inedible oils and fats with hydrogen. The typical drop-in fuel is any hydrocarbon fuel made from non-petroleum sources that can substitute commonly used fossil fuels like diesel, jet fuel or gasoline. For aircrafts, drop-in fuel can be blended to up to 50% with petroleum-based ATF under the ASTM D7566 industry standard. Ray said that the IIP technology goes a step further, that the drop-in fuel thus produced directly meets the specifications for fossil-derived jet fuel (as under standard ASTM D1655).

In January 2010, several partners convened as part of an ‘Applications of Biofuels for Aviation’ project under the Indo-Canada Science and Technology Cooperation Programme, sponsored, among others, by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and a CII-GOI collaboration called the Global Innovation and Technology Alliance. Consequently, the Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, IIP, the Indian Institute of Science (Bengaluru), IIT Kanpur, Infotech Enterprises, Ltd. and the DST signed an agreement in Delhi to develop aviation-specific biofuels, propulsion and specific combustion technology applicable to blended biofuels.

The global scene

After over six years of negotiations, governments met in October 2016 at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal, and were able to agreement on the design elements of a global market-based measure for international aviation. This is part of a series of actions the aviation industry is taking to reduce its carbon emissions, which includes investing in new technology, scaling up the use of sustainable alternative fuels, improving operational performance of aircraft in the fleet already and using more efficient infrastructure.

A major outcome of their negotiations was the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the world’s first market mechanism for dealing with climate change from any industrial sector, according to the Air Transport Action Group. The global aviation industry has been instrumental in proposing the plan and has been encouraging more countries to support it. The 65 that have signed up so far (India hasn’t yet) represent more than 85% of the global air traffic. The CORSIA will consist of a global offsetting scheme to be applied to international aviation in several phases. A key component of this will be biofuels.

Recently published studies have also been supportive of the use of biofuels in aircraft. A report published in February 2017 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) states: “Emissions can be reduced by 1.5% annually through improved fuel efficiency in new aircraft. However, a significant longer-term reduction of emissions would require airlines to use more fuels that are renewable and sustainable, such as biofuels developed for jet aircraft.”

Francisco Boshell, an analyst at IRENA, told The Wire that such fuels are a promising option to achieve significant reductions in aviation emissions by 2050. Although clean and alternative propulsion technologies like electric or solar-powered aircraft and the use of cryogenic hydrogen are being developed, these options are unlikely to be ready for commercial use until well after 2050. Additionally, given the fact that aircraft are expensive to manufacture, airlines typically want to use them for as long as possible before replacing them.

Another advantage biofuels have towards helping attain climate goals is that some of them are completely compatible as well as interchangeable with petroleum-based fuel: they don’t require jet engines to be modified to be able to use them. Moreover, though bio-jet fuels can also reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to fossil-based jet fuels, the potential of different feedstocks differs significantly: values range from 50% to 95% of the claimed potential reduction when compared with fossil jet fuel, according to Boshell.

Additionally, an international experiment involving NASA, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the National Research Council of Canada found that a fuel blend with 50% biofuel reduces soot particle emissions of the aircraft by 50-70% compared to conventional fuels. The results, published in Nature in March this year, reveal how the use of biofuels in aviation can contribute to making air transport more environmentally friendly – not only by reducing emissions in the vicinity of airports but also in cruise conditions.

Ray says a thorough life-cycle analysis should be done for every biofuel produced, and for a biofuel to be considered sustainable, it should reduce life-cycle GHG emissions by at least 50%. “Presently, all vehicles are designed to be running on hydrocarbon fuels and the fuel industry is into a diet that primarily consists of fossil-derived hydrocarbons,” he explained.

First generation biofuels contain oxygen. For example, biodiesel for blending with diesel contains 12% oxygen and the ethanol used for blending with petrol contains 33% oxygen. Oxygenated fuels at double-digit blend levels can’t be used in an unmodified vehicle – and also require revamped infrastructure for storage, handling, transport and distribution. However, the blends can be used with unmodified infrastructure if the levels drop below 10%.

Internationally, the extensive use of soybean, corn and sugarcane as feedstock for producing oxygenated biofuels pitted them against agriculture and triggered a ‘food versus fuel debate’. India has held to a policy of only non-food feedstocks from the start; the National Policy on Biofuels 2015 envisages that biofuels will be produced using non-food feedstock on wastelands. Even in the case of sugarcane, only molasses is permitted for use in fuel ethanol production. Second generation biofuels don’t use inputs that compete with food – such as jatropha or non-edible crop residues, according to Ray.

However, bio-jet fuel is generally two- to seven-times more expensive than conventional fossil-derived jet fuels. “The cost of bio-jet is one of the most daunting barriers,” Boshell said. “When oil prices are below $50 per barrel, biofuels can hardly compete and the price gap between bio-jet and conventional jet fuels is difficult to close.” Yet it is in the aviation industry’s best interest to find long-term solutions to the decarbonisation challenge. However, appropriate policy measures will be crucial to promote the production and consumption of bio-jet fuels, Boshell added.

Where is India headed?

India’s civil aviation industry is on a high-growth trajectory. It aims to become the third-largest aviation market by 2020 and the largest by 2030. Biofuels are therefore immensely relevant to the country and its various targets, given that it has a market size of around $16 billion.

Moreover, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has expressed hope that India will also join CORSIA. “There is really a question of understanding the implications of CORSIA for India where aviation is growing very quickly and emissions are growing very quickly,” Pail Steele, the senior vice-president of member and external relations at CORSIA, had told The Hindu Business Line in December 2016. “We would hope that between now and 2020, India will also join CORSIA as a way to help address its emission.”

In January 2017, CSIR and the Chhattisgarh Biofuel Development Authority (CBDA) signed an agreement announcing that they’d work on creating a robust rural network for the collection, storage and supply of Jatropha curcas seed oil, and other tree-borne oilseeds, to produce bio-jet aviation fuel for demonstration flights in India. The proposed project will be in force for three years under CSIR fast-track translation projects for technology demonstration, and process flexibility for production of bio-aviation fuels.

Sumit Sarkar, a CBDA project officer, told The Wire, “During 2005-2009, almost 30 crore jatropha saplings were planted in 1.56 lakh hectares. Seeds collected through a robust rural network and the state expertise will help this project.”

Ray added: “In Chattisgarh, there is a good network of farmers and they can produce oil by planting oilseed crops. The planting of oil seeds is also expected to increase rural income and create jobs. Converting this into small amounts of aviation biofuel for a demonstration flight at Dehradun is a long drawn process – we expect such a test flight to be operational within about two years.”

“However, we still need a major coordinated effort across sectors to meet this target. Even though we do have a reasonable amount of oilseeds that can be used for drop-in biofuel, there is no mature supply chain for oils and fats in India to feed such a production facility.”

In the period up to 2030, global aviation is expected to grow by 5% annually, according to IATA – while the demand for aviation fuels is expected to increase by about 1.5-3 % per year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The global nature of the aviation sector requires measures at national and international levels, which is an additional challenge according to Boshell. Long-term policies should create a stable market demand for standard and advanced biofuels. Other measures may include subsidies, tax credits, grants for R&D and loan guarantees for building facilities, he suggested, adding that it is also important to consider policies that support the development of feedstock supply chains (e.g., infrastructure development grants).

Sarkar thinks that replacing 100% petroleum/diesel with 100% distilled biodiesel in this sector and encouraging the planting of jatropha crops could push the biofuel industry in India in the right direction.

Sapna Gopal is an independent journalist associated with niche magazines in the renewable energy and environmental sphere, such as Energy Next and Planet Earth (India). Currently, she contributes to Energy Future, Terra Green, India Climate Dialogue and blogs for ETLS International.