January 12, 2022

Last week, New Energy and Fuel reported on an Arizona State University (ASU) study that shows how the US aviation sector can decarbonize.

The solution, according to the ASU academics, would be to allocate 23 million hectares of marginal agricultural land to planting the grass miscanthus (silver grass), which can in turn be used in ethanol production.

The resulting Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) would cost just over $4 a gallon, around double of typical aviation fuel prices.

However, the report authors point out that market fluctuations have at times pushed fuel costs up to $5 a gallon, so the suggested price isn’t outlandish.

One of the controversies around biofuels is the potential use of land that could be used for food crops. As a result, the report authors envisage the use of marginal agricultural land.

“Be careful what you wish for” commented ex-KLM vice president of sustainability Karel Bockstael on LinkedIn, pointing out that 23 million hectares is the combined land mass of the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Ireland.

According to Bockstael, what the study actually shows is “the huge energy intensity of flying.”

The ASU authors do recognize that they are suggesting a large land area for growing miscanthus is used, saying that it is roughly the equivalent area of the state of Wyoming.

However, they feel that it is a realistic prospect, however in the American Midwest and not in the plains states.

Finally, the report authors say they put this paper forward because the time for incremental steps is over.

According to Arizona State University – “The researchers say that in finding further solutions to Earth’s climate crisis, it is important that the scientific community bridges disciplines and moves past incremental reductions in emissions. Rather, the researchers emphasise the importance of realistic solutions that scale.”

Boom says SAF production can scale up in the next decade

Boom, which plans on having supersonic aircraft in service in the next decade, has likewise come out with a study that it says shows how SAF production can scale up to meet industry demands.

In the paper, Dr. Akshay Ashok, and Ben Murphy (two Boom sustainability experts), studied the trajectory of wind and solar power development and applied these formulas of success to SAF.

Ashok and Murphy say that the supply of SAF can drastically be scaled upwards provided that there are high levels of R&D funding, Government incentives, and a sustained long-term policy.

European NGO – Oil giants favour “unsustainable” biofuels

European NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) has released a report claiming that oil companies are investing eight times more in biofuel refineries than they are in green hydrogen. 

According to T&E’s Geert Decock: 

“Oil producers are promoting hydrogen as their big bet for the future, but in reality their investments in green hydrogen are pitiful. Instead, they are focusing their new refining capacity on biofuels which cannot sustainably supply the world’s transport needs. This is not an industry pushing the boundaries of clean technology.”

T&E claims that the focus on biofuels will lead to feedstocks like animal fats being taken from other industries, as well as what it calls “dubious” imports of cooking oil from developing countries. 

In April 2021, T&E released another report showing that China supplies 34% of Europe’s used cooking oil imports, while a fifth comes from Indonesia and Malaysia combined.

T&E asserts that the high demand for used cooking oil as a biofuel feedstock could result in palm oil being sent in place of cooking oil, thereby increasing deforestation.  

Transport & Environment has previously advocated both for the production of green hydrogen, and when it comes to aviation, setting an ambitious E-Fuel target.

Oregon biofuels plant at risk of going under

You’d imagine that a biofuels refinery with an injection of cash from the US Air Force, and the support of FedEx and Southwest Airlines would be a surefire success story.

In fact, Red Rock Biofuels in Oregon appears to be at serious risk of going under, having never produced any aviation fuel. 

A read from Oregon Live looks at why that is.

First of all projects like this are incredibly capital-intensive and prone to delays. Red Rock Biofuels was originally meant to come online in 2017 and still isn’t active.

Then, Biofuelwatch, quoted in the piece, doubts whether converting woodland biomass (the proposed feedstock) via a “fuel production process developed in the 1920s in Germany” (Fischer-Tropsch), will ever work at scale.

A useful reality check is that especially with biofuels, there are opportunities but at least an equal number of challenges that need to be overcome.

Fulcrum Bionenergy eyes up expansion

Finally, a good news story in the biofuels space:

Fulcrum Bioenergy, whose investors include United Airlines, is now successfully producing low-carbon fuel from household waste.  At the end of last year, Fulcrum’s Sierra BioFuels Plant in Nevada opened as the world’s first commercial-scale landfill waste-to-fuels plant.

At the same time, Fulcrum Bioenergy has secured almost £17 million ($20.6 million) in UK Government funding for a plant in the North West of England, that will “convert black bin bag waste to jet fuel”.  As a result, the UK plant, scheduled to open in 2027 will use the same ‘trash to SAF’ process as the Nevada facility. 

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