July 18, 2008

Airlines Grasping For Alternative Fuel Sources

An aviation industry now grasping for profits is resorting to algae and nuts to fuel a comeback.

It may seem like weird science, but with oil prices pushing through the $150 a barrel barrier, biofuels made from alternative sources are no longer far-fetched. Experts say however, they will take years to develop and no one will be soaring through the skies on farm-fuelled jets any time soon.

During the Farnborough air show this week, aerospace firms displayed their green credentials, as they discussed potential alternatives to help airlines cope with high fuel prices while still meeting environmental requirements.

Environmentalists say they are not impressed with the discussion; they view it as empty talk.

"At $70 a barrel, people were saying 'it is never going to happen'. At $150 a barrel, it starts to look interesting," said Ric Parker, Rolls-Royce's research and technology head.

The world-renown British engine maker said it was starting a scientific test program with British Airways to research alternative aviation fuels.

Paul Adams, senior vice president of engineering at U.S. rival Pratt & Whitney said, "There is some realization that the industry needs to be proactive.. and if they aren't then we'll be forced by governments to be proactive."

The airline industry has criticized the European Union for approving a deal to add aviation-which generates 3 percent of carbon dioxide emissions-from 2012 in the EU's Emission Trading Scheme.

"(For) the people who figure out how to make (alternative fuels) work, it will be a very profitable thing for them in the long term," Adams said.

Research has progressed slowly in the aviation industry, due to fuel with specific needs, including low freezing points.

The industry has been pushed full speed ahead on finding alternative fuels because high oil prices and concerns over pollution have forced the industry to step up their efforts towards finding a sustainable and economically viable alternative to oil-based kerosene. The current fuel has doubled in price over the past year.

Another major factor forcing research is the political desire for fuel independence, especially in the United States.

The U.S. Air Force wants to run its entire fleet on a 50/50 blend of jet fuel and synthetic fuel by 2017, spokesman Gary Strasburg said in a statement.

In the alternative energy race, synthetic fuels based on non-renewable sources such as gas and coal are winning over plant-based biofuels.

This year, European plane maker Airbus flew one of its A380 superjumbos using synthetic fuel from natural gas. The mixture is known as gas-to-liquid, which is almost free of sulphur, can be used with current engines and could be available soon.

Biofuels are produced from crops such as grain, vegetable oils and sugar. Advocates contend they are a better alternative fuel since they could potentially cut emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Nuts found in Amazon rainforests helped fuel the world's first commercial airline flight partly powered by renewable energy.

But critics of biofuel say using crops for fuel will drive up food prices, and some scientists have questioned the environmental benefits of first-generation biofuels.

Axel Krein, Airbus' senior vice president for research and technology said, "The real environmental improvement will come with bio-to-liquid, but the difficulty is not to compete with the food chain."

Algae is an option because it would not compete with human food consumption. Researchers also say it contains a lot of energy and uses less area than crops. Still, Krein said,  "significant and meaningful" quantities of biofuels would not be available before 2015-2020.

Airbus chief Tom Enders said it would take several years to replace kerosene, adding that a 30 percent cut by 2030 was possible.

Environmental group Greenpeace is skeptical.  Campaigner Anna Jones said, "Alternative fuels are a pipe dream."

"The idea that alternative fuels will solve climate change sometime in the distant future is just a distraction when we need to start slashing our emissions now," Jones added.

Charles Alcock, of Aviation International News said, improved engine design could deliver greater savings and contribute more to reducing carbon emissions than alternative fuels.

Through new technology, plane makers say they have reduced aircraft fuel burn and carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent and noise by 75 percent since the early 1970s.