Market perspective: Aviation biofuels
The aviation sector is one of the principal sources of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, contributing over 2% of global emissions – more than 90% of the world’s countries. As air traffic levels continue to rise, the required longevity of airline fleets rules out engineering solutions for emission mitigation. Thus, at present, the only significant available solution to the aviation emissions is biofuels. The sector has been held back in the past by stringent performance requirements and a lack of market presence, but is now picking up steam.
As far as aviation biofuel technology goes, five options are currently sanctioned by ASTM standards:
• Hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA)
• Fischer-Tropsch Fuels o From Syngas o From Biogas
• Synthesised Iso-Paraffinic Fuels (SIP)
• Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ)
Of these technologies, HEFA is the only one to have been used commercially, but all of them remain at various stages of development. The most significant barrier to any one of them taking-off is the need to make the fuels themselves affordable. Fuel costs make up one third of airline running costs, and so for widespread adoption to become a reality, significant market development is required. There are issues with economies of scale, as well as individual problems attached to each technology, such as competing end-markets, and complex supply chains. In order for any one (or more) of the above technologies to establish themselves, significant support will be required from legislation to help stimulate the markets, and to economically justify development of the fuels.
The sector is still a young one, and needs to be given time to develop, with different measures needed in different places – more diverse recognition of technologies in the USA, and greater faith placed in the sector’s economic potential in the UK – but in the absence of alternative technologies (with hydrogen- and/or electric-powered flight still being decades away from viability), aviation biofuels have a very high market potential, once development hurdles can be successfully navigated.