Frost & Sullivan

Biofuels an important step in achieving a greener aviation industry


Source: Frost & Sullivan

Aircraft emissions, ground transportation and related travel in the airline and airports business contribute to air pollution and global warming, and carbon reduction in this area has long been an area of research. In 2008 alone, U.S. passenger and cargo airline operations required 16.1 billion gallons or approximately 382.4 million barrels of jet fuel.

Commercial aviation consumes 3.0 million barrels of jet fuel every day, which is close to 3.4% of entire global liquid fuel consumption. This is only going to increase with 21,400 new aircraft to be delivered and included in the future fleet that will consist of 27,720 passenger aircraft and 4,280 freight aircraft. In order to curb CO2 emissions of this large fleet, a cleaner fuel is indispensable.

Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific Consultant of Aerospace & Defense Practice Amartya De says that an A380 consumes less than three liters per 100 seat km, averaged across all OECD countries, and that for the average car is 8 liters per 100 km. 'A Boeing 737 burns about 3,000 liters of fuel and emits 6.5 tons of CO2 every flight hour. This is as good as the pollution caused by 1,540 small cars for a day. This is just a rough estimate as under actual conditions, fuel consumption depends on a number of factors including fuel usage during take-off and landing, winds and jet streams that affect an aircraft's fuel efficiency.'

'A one way flight between Hong Kong and London would dump 1 Ton of CO2 per passenger into the atmosphere for the 9,600 km journey and if there is no definite way to offset this amount of carbon very soon, we are surely not far from the tipping point' he continues.

Presently the airline industry contributes only 2.0% of the overall man-made global CO2 emissions compared to other forms of transport that contribute 16.0% of the global manmade CO2 emissions. However, this 2.0% contribution to CO2 emissions is likely to touch 3.0% by 2050.

Amartya says that this large volume of jet fuel needs to be replaced by an alternative fuel as the financial impact and CO2 emissions are set to increase in the future. 'This is due to the ever increasing commercial aircraft fleet numbers which are expected to almost double from its present strength of 16,800 to reach 32,000 by 2025', he explains.

'Green Aviation is all about efficiency gains as well as reducing the absolute emissions by aircraft. Hence part of the solution to the problem is to find alternative fuels which would not need any modification to existing aircraft designs or fueling infrastructure in the short run, emit less carbon than traditional crude oil based kerosene and yet prove to be more economical than fossil fuels,' he says.

Amartya says that Green Aviation is a continuous process, milestones can be achieved only by collective efforts from various spheres such as better aerodynamics in aircraft design and manufacturing; alternative and greener fuel sources such as fuel cells and biofuels; efficient engines; route optimization and network development; efficient air traffic management; coercive legislative policies; and positive economic measures.

'Technological advances over the last forty years in the commercial aviation sector have reduced fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 70%, noise by 75% and unburned hydrocarbons by 90%,' says Amartya.

He also identified biofuels as an important step in achieving a greener aviation industry as biofuels are the only fuel type which plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere when they are burnt to derive energy, helping to offset the emissions produced.

'The solution does not solely lie in providing an alternative, clean biofuel and showing the world that the concept works. Rather, the solution lies in evaluating its marketability and economic feasibility over the long run,' Amartya says.

He adds, 'Another important aspect of biofuels is that it should not compete with food crops because if they do so then it will lead to increased clearing of rain forests and that would in fact aggravate global warming. Biofuels such as jatropha do not compete with food or fresh water resources or cause deforestation and can be grown on marginal land in arid conditions. Alternative green fuels could be derived from algae or halophyte, which are known as second generation biofuels.'

The International Air Transport Association's target for the certification of sustainable biofuels is by 2010.

Amartya says, 'For biofuels to become prevalent in aviation, the existing supply chain needs to be incorporated rather than develop a new one. Biofuels will not replace traditional jet fuel within the next five years and the use of biofuels will continue to be complementary to petroleum fuels for a reasonable time to come. The sustainability, efficient distribution, and cost effectiveness of these alternative fuels will be key determinants of their market acceptability. Frost & Sullivan envisages that we will be using a biofuel and regular fuel mix by 2014.'

Other green trends include the inclusion of the aviation industry in the European Emissions Trading Scheme and for trading to start in 2012. Frost & Sullivan examines that paying for carbon emissions post 2012 will not make great business sense; rather, it would be wiser to investigate lower carbon alternatives to existing technologies and fuel sources.

'Imposing overly stringent climate legislation on the aviation industry in a difficult financial climate will not move business, jobs or markets to other countries. Rather, earlier acceptability by major value chain owners will ensure their long term existence in the aviation market,' Amartya concludes.

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