Green Aviation: It's All About Biofuels, But Get Ready to Wait


planeflightPlane flights are the bane of the eco-elite. You can buy a plug-in car and build a green home, but when it comes to preaching the green gospel, or attending numerous greentech sales meeting, racking up plane flights — and swelling your carbon footprint as a result — can be hard to avoid. And the environmental impact of air travel is only growing: According to a report from Frost & Sullivan, the number of commercial aircraft fleets are expected to almost double to 32,000 by 2025, bumping the carbon emissions due to air travel from 2 percent of the world’s emissions to 3 percent by 2050.

While more efficient engine and aircraft design and route optimization over the past 40 years has managed to cut fuel consumption and carbon emissions by 70 percent, the amount of fuel consumed by the airline industry is still staggering: Plane flights in the U.S. last year burned up 16.1 billion gallons or 382.4 million barrels, of jet fuel. Globally the industry consumes the equivalent of 3 million barrels of jet fuel every day or 3.4 percent of the liquid fuel supply.

Planes won’t be cutting their fuel consumption dramatically any time soon, so Frost & Sullivan says the immediate answer is biofuels — “a cleaner fuel is indispensable,” the report says. The industry needs alternative fuels that do not require changing the design of airplane or fueling infrastructure and are cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

But biofuels, like algae (which the report only mentions in passing) will only be “complementary to petroleum fuel for a reasonable time to come,” at least for the next five years, says the report. Reaching that conclusion doesn’t require rocket science — there’s very little biofuels being mixed into aviation fuel currently (and no algae fuel being produced on a commercial scale), so there’s no way that the aviation industry could switch over to biofuel by 2014.

Algae fuel is one of the most promising biofuels being developed by startups and big firms for aviation. Solazyme’s renewable jet fuel has passed almost a dozen specifications needed to pass the jet fuel industry standard. Earlier this year Continental Airlines and Air New Zelanad tested algae fuel in trial flights courtesy of Sapphire Energy. And the Department of Defense awarded Science Applications International a contract worth up to $25 million to develop a $3-a-gallon algae-derived fuel for military jets. Check out these 5 startups sending algae up in the air.


Bob Wallace

Some more current data probably exists, but in 2000 US passengers rode 516 billion miles by plane and 4,390 miles by automobile.

10% of miles by planes. And they did that with <4% of the liquid fuel?

And in 2000 planes averaged 38 MPG per passenger mile.

I’d say that our concentration needs to be on electrifying our personal vehicles and improving our rail service for short/medium length trips and not get overly concerned about planes.

When we get carbon neutral biofuels for planes, great, but between now and then just cut the amount of petroleum we burn on the ground. That’s doable right now.

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