Most of the big news at the Paris Air Show usually is about what’s being unveiled at the industry’s big event that begins next week. But this year both Boeing and Honeywell are getting a leg up on the flurry of news by talking up how they are getting to Le Bourget Field.
Later today, Honeywell will fly its Gulfstream 450 on the first transatlantic flight using a biofuel blend. And on Monday, Boeing will fly to Paris with its new 747-8 freighter (above, during first flight) also on a biofuel blend. Both companies are flying to Paris with a biofuel produced using a process Honeywell developed. On each flight a blend of fuel derived from the camelina plant will be used without any modifications being made to the aircraft.
Earlier this month the use of biofuels in aviation took a significant step forward when ASTM International issued a provisional set of standards for the production aviation biofuel. This begins the regulatory process for the commercial use of biofuels in airliners and other aircraft.
There have been numerous demonstration flights in both commercial and military aircraft using biofuel. But the wide spread use of biofuels in aviation is still many years off says analyst Richard Aboulafia. But he says pressure from outside the industry, especially in Europe, makes it important to get the word out early.
“It’s important given the political pressure and regulatory climate to message there’s something coming” he says.
Honeywell’s Jim Rekoske acknowledges the widespread use of biofuels in aviation is indeed not going to happen next week. But he says with the provisional ASTM standard now available, commercial facilities can now be built, something that was difficult up until now.
“Finding somebody who would put up their money in order to build a facility to produce a fuel that is not approved for use is a bit of a challenge.”
The next big challenge for the industry if it ever hopes to use significant quantities of a blend of biofuels in jet aircraft is the cost of the biofuel. Jet fuel is a significant portion of the cost of doing business in the airline industry, as well as for air forces around the world. Every penny fluctuation in the cost of jet fuel has massive implications on the bottom line.
According to Rekoske Honeywell’s production process will be licensed to fuel producers. Currently he says the cost differential between converting petroleum oil into jet fuel versus converting a biomass derived oil is about four to five dollars a barrel – about 10 to 12 cents per gallon. That’s significant for an industry that counts the number of peanuts in a package.
Beyond the construction of the conversion facilities, the availability of a feedstock is the next challenge in reducing that price differential.
“Last year there were about 40-50,000 acres in the United States that were cultivated with camelina plants” Rekoske says. “That produced about 500-600,000 gallons of camelina oil.”
Camelina has been the dominant feedstock for jet fuel blended biofuel so far. But algae based fuels are also being looked at as a way to produce the quantities of oil needed to have a significant impact in the industry. World wide Rekoske says more than 50 billion gallons of jet fuel were burned last year.
Honeywell’s Gulfstream will be flying on a 50/50 blend of camelina derived fuel on its way to Paris. The Boeing 747-8 will be burning a blend using 15 percent of the same biofuel.
Photo: Jason Paur/Wired.com