Algae and other plant sources could soon help power jetliners
Oct 26, 2009 - Michelle Dunlop - Herald Net
|The Boeing Co. / Targeted Growth
Vials hold samples of aviation fuel made from algae and plants.
EVERETT — Three years ago, few would have believed that algae could power an airplane.
Today, algae is one of several biofuel sources seen as propelling the aviation industry’s goal of reducing its carbon footprint. “Progress is going at a much faster pace than anybody anticipated,” Giovanni Bisignani, director of International Air Transport Association, said on Friday. “Three years ago sustainable biofuels were a dream. Now we expect certification no later than 2011.”
Among those pushing biofuels are the Boeing Co. and Targeted Growth Inc., a crop biotechnology company based in Seattle.
Dale Smith, who directs Boeing’s environment program, and Margaret McCormick, general manager of bio-based materials at Targeted Growth, spoke last week at a meeting of the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County.
“We are not getting into the biofuels business,” Boeing’s Smith said.
However, Boeing is trying to make sure biofuel options are available for its customers.
Carbon emissions from aircraft make up 2 percent of the world’s total, but the industry has come to realize that it, too, must play a role in reducing the emissions that damage the environment, Smith said. The industrywide goal is to replace 1 percent of jet fuel with biofuel by 2015. That means roughly 600 million gallons of biofuel will need to be helping to fuel aircraft within the next six years.
“We think it’s very manageable,” Smith said.
The aerospace company is putting its efforts into second-generation biofuels — sources that don’t compete for land or resources with food crops, such as corn and soybeans. Working with airline and engine manufacturing partners, Boeing already has participated in four biofuel flights already.
Besides looking into biofuel, Boeing has other policies and plans in place to improve the company’s and industry’s carbon footprints. For instance, Boeing expects its lighter-weight 787 will offer a 15 percent reduction in fuel consumed over comparably sized aircraft. The company has worked at developing winglets, an upward curve at the end of a jet’s wing that reduces drag and saves on fuel. Boeing also has been advocating changes in the management of air traffic as a means of reducing emissions.
Targeted Growth is one of the companies researching biofuels. Founded in 1998, the company doesn’t focus solely on aviation applications but works with the agriculture and energy industries. Like Boeing, Targeted Growth is interested in “drop-in” replacements for petroleum, which has led to research into algae and camelina sativa, a flowering plant whose seeds are pressed for oil.
“We’re talking about looking at something’s molecular structure and not being able to tell if it’s algae, petroleum or camelina,” McCormick said.
Camelina offers an 84 percent reduction in greenhouse gases over petroleum, McCormick said. And it’s a “100 percent drop-in replacement for petroleum,” meaning that it can be used with the existing infrastructure of pipelines and fuel tanks. A member of the mustard family, camelina thrives in marginal soils, like those found in Eastern Washington and western Montana, McCormick said.
Some researchers believe algae-based fuel holds the greater potential because it produces a larger amount of fuel per acre of production than do other biofuel sources, such as camelina. However, the technology for producing algae-based fuel lags behind that of camelina, which is seen as a good short-term solution, McCormick said.
Algae soaks up carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. An ideal site for an algae-production facility would be next to a traditional power plant, McCormick said. Targeted Growth is looking for a site in Western Washington for a biofuel facility. McCormick thinks an announcement of that location could come in the next six to nine months.
Although many people are looking for a “silver bullet” source that would replace petroleum completely, neither McCormick nor Smith see that as likely. Instead, the future of aviation biofuels rests with an array of sources, including algae, camelina and jatropha, a plant that’s native to Central America. The seeds of jatropha, a succulent plant, can be pressed and the oil used for fuel.
On Friday, IATA’s Bisignani reiterated the need to work globally to reduce aviation’s emissions. IATA represents 230 airlines, or 93 percent of the world’s air traffic.
“We need a global solution that can encompass all of aviation — incorporating the differing situations of airlines from developed and developing nations,” Bisignani said.