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Just like every beginning market, biokerosene has to contend with ‘the establishment’. Higher prices, technologies under development and small supply. There are positive signals that indicate a larger demand, which can then be matched with increased production and lower fuel prices.
Lucien Joppen

That demand will have to mainly come from the aviation industry, that is, airplane manufacturers and airlines. The good news is that these parties have made commitments in the past few years to allow more biokerosene to enter.

This year the 191 companies that are united in the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) made the agreement to achieve CO2-neutral growth as of 2020 and to reduce the total CO2 emissions by 50 percent in 2050, compared with 2005.

‘The drivers behind this development are compound,’ says Misha Valk of SkyNRG, a major chain player in biojet fuel. ‘Airlines want to reduce their CO2 footprint in order to lower their share in global warming. They have a number of tools they can use for this purpose, such as reducing the weight of the aircraft, flying more efficient routes, or adhering to flight protocols that require less fuel. But these are merely optimisation drives with which the sector will not achieve its ambitious targets. Road transport has alternatives, such as electricity or hydrogen, that will not be implemented for aviation in the next few decades, say until 2060. The development and use cycles of passenger airplanes are too long for that. In the end, biofuels are the only option for aviation to accomplish net CO2 emission reduction.’

Stable price

A second motive, according to Valk, is the availability and price stability of aviation fuel in the medium term. Fuels are the most important operational cost item. The kerosene prices are currently relatively low, but low oil prices are no guarantee against severe price fluctuations. At the end of 2014 the kerosene price in the USA rose by more than 9 percent within a month, while the oil price in that period actually dropped by 4 percent. The reason: an unexpected rising demand from a strengthening market.
Airlines thus gain if there is greater supply from non-fossil and comparatively cheap feedstocks. The focus is almost exclusively on second-generation biomass, according to Valk. ‘In the past, other parties used biojet fuels based on edible feedstocks such as palm oil, but they quickly came under attack from NGOs: there is a relationship between palm oil and the deforestation of rainforest. Airlines have therefore expressed their preference for feedstocks that do not directly compete with the production and consumption of foodstuffs.’

Four routes approved

In the meantime, a number of routes are now available that have been approved by the ASTM, the American counterpart of NEN, based on various feedstocks and different technologies. The biokerosenes from these processes have to be added in varying ratios – between 10 and 50 percent.

Four routes have been approved: Fischer-Tropsch, HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids), Alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) and Synthesized Iso-Paraffins (SIP). With the Fischer-Tropsch process, carbon-rich feedstock is converted into synthesis gas (syngas) and then catalytically into kerosene or biokerosene. Alcohol-to-jet is a process based on sugars – first or second generation from cellulose – via an alcohol intermediate to biokerosene. The American company Gevo has developed this process (see box Alaska Airlines). The ASTM has approved the biokerosene, but scaling up still needs to take place. SIP, developed by Amyris, is based on the fermentation of second-generation sugars to hydrocarbons which are then converted into biokerosene through a thermochemical process.

HEFA the furthest

HEFA is by far the technology that has come the furthest and that is already in semi-industrial production (editor’s note: 40 Ktonnes per year by the American AltAir Fuels). Around 90 percent of all flights with biokerosene made since the first flight in 2011 have been based on HEFA. In this process, vegetable or animal fats/oils – such as used cooking oil – are converted into biojet fuels or other biofuels such as biodiesel.

Air France-KLM is one of the airlines that flies on a mixture of kerosene and HEFA kerosene on one of its routes: returning from LAX in Los Angeles. ‘The fuel for our flights from Los Angeles contains 30 percent biokerosene,’ according to an Air France-KLM spokesperson. ‘Translated to all flights from LAX and the more than 8,000-tonne reduction that is planned, in the next three years we will fly using an average of 6 percent biofuel.’

Household waste

As mentioned, the aviation industry is targeting feedstocks that compete as little as possible with the production and consumption of foodstuffs and that are also attractive price-wise. Used oils and fats from the food chain may be good for converting into biokerosene with a high blend ratio (50 percent), but they are comparatively expensive – and scarce – because they can also be used for other applications, such as feed.

That is why various consortia and/or companies are scrutinising different feedstocks, such as inedible crops like camelina or the ‘veteran’ jatropha. In addition, these plants grow in areas that are not suitable for agriculture, so that no cannibalisation occurs. Other likely candidates are crops containing cellulose from forestry or the primary sector and household waste. Thus the American company Fulcrum produces biojet fuel by gasifying household waste into syngas and converting it via the Fischer-Tropsch process into a synthetic crude oil. This can then be converted into biokerosene or other biofuels.

Valk: ‘If there are several suitable feedstocks, this plays into the sector’s hand. Not only as far as price is concerned, but also regarding availability at the airports. Production and processing would ideally take place locally, so that biomass and biokerosene are transported as little as possible.’

No infrastructure modifications

In view of the ambitions of the aviation sector to reduce its CO2 footprint drastically (among other things by adding biokerosene), the market for biojet fuel will undoubtedly have to grow. The technologies for converting low-grade biomass into biokerosene are on their way. If the production capacity is expanded, price levels will also move closer to those of fossil kerosene. ‘Five years ago the difference was still a factor of 15, while now it is around 2.3,’ according to Valk. ‘That is still a significant difference, but the gap is getting smaller. There are no two ways about it: aviation wants biokerosene, but at a price level that is comparable with fossil jet fuel.’

According to Valk, the price difference can be partly blamed on inefficient supply chains. It is essential for the supply to use existing infrastructure for fossil kerosene such as pipelines. If not, the operational costs will be considerably higher. This year Oslo was the first airport in the world where biokerosene blends became available ‘on tap’. ‘They managed this without drastic modifications. Many stakeholders, airports, airlines and managers of the ‘fuel farms’ at airports do not realise this entirely yet. Part of our task is to remove this barrier.’

Bridging the price difference

Governments could also lend a helping hand to bridge the price difference, for example by establishing a blend obligation. But this is not the case. At the same time it is also a threat, because the biokerosene manufacturers can use their technologies to produce other biofuels such as biodiesel, for which there is a guaranteed market. This would mean that the R&D and scaling up would shift more towards transport fuels, away from biokerosene.

So the push really has to come from the market. SkyNRG, as a downstream player, sees it partly as its task to help airlines to compensate the price difference. One way it does this is by acquiring corporate clients, ABN AMRO for example. These companies pay slightly more for their tickets and through that, help develop the market. It is a nice gesture, but most air travellers are private persons. Shouldn’t they be prepared to pay more for a ‘low-CO2’ flight?

According to Air France-KLM, recent customer surveys show that travellers believe that renewable energy is important and that the airline could pay more attention to the matter of biofuels. The question is whether travellers would also want to pay a surcharge. In the current market, where many carriers try to bluff each other with prices, this could be a bridge too far for the time being.

Facts & Figures

  • The international aviation industry produces approximately 2 percent of all CO2 emissions on earth.
  • Of all transport movements, aviation takes up 12 percent of the CO2 emissions; road transport is responsible for the lion’s share with 74%.
  • The aviation industry uses up more than 250,000,000 tonnes of kerosene per year.
  • The global annual production of biokerosene will amount to approximately 40,000 tonnes in 2017.

Sources: IATA/SkyNRG

Alaska Airlines

On 14 November 2016 the first commercial flight took place that was powered by 30 percent alcohol-to-jet fuel based on second-generation sugars. The manufacturer of the biokerosene is Gevo, which converts the sugars into isobutanol and then into ATJ. Alaska Airlines had the honour, on a scheduled flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. According to Gevo, cellulosic biojet fuel has the future, in view of scaling up, availability of biomass and the roll-out to diverse locations in the world.

Simply fly less

Using biokerosene to reduce the airline’s CO2 footprint does not go down well with all parties. For example, in response to the first KLM flight on used cooking oil in 2011, Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) argued that inedible crops such as jatropha also take up agricultural land. The group also has doubts about the feasibility of the endeavour to significantly reduce CO2 emissions via biokerosene. ‘Even just to satisfy the requirements of the European airline industry in 2020, an “extra Belgium” would be needed for the agricultural land.’ According to Milieudefensie, there is only one effective measure: fly less. The NGO recommends the train or high-speed train for distances shorter than 500 kilometres within Europe.