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World Cup Scores Bio Jet Fuel

Renewables: UOP technology is at vanguard of slow-to-develop market

by Melody M. Bomgardner
June 19, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 25

Photo of a GOL Airlines plane.
Credit: GOL Airlines
Brazil’s national soccer team flies GOL Airlines, powered by biobased jet fuel.

Brazil’s national soccer team is flying to its World Cup matches in low-carbon style, thanks to GOL Airlines and 24,000 gal of biobased jet fuel supplied by UOP. Airlines around the globe have said “olé” to renewable jet fuels as part of their effort to lower carbon emissions. But meaningful production is off to a slow start.

UOP, a process technology and catalyst firm owned by Honeywell, developed its renewable jet fuel technology in 2007 under a U.S. military contract. This year, AltAir Fuels, using UOP technology, will open the first U.S. commercial-scale bio jet fuel plant, near Los Angeles. United Airlines has agreed to purchase a minimum of 15 million gal of the plant’s fuel, made from waste vegetable oil, over three years.

In April, British Airways said it will proceed with a municipal waste-to-jet fuel project with U.S. partner Solena Fuels. Construction on the Fischer-Tropsch technology facility, outside London, is expected to begin next year. The airline committed to purchase the plant’s entire 16 million-gal-per-year output for its first 11 years.

French oil company Total has partnered with Amyris, a maker of biobased chemicals, on a fermentation route to lower-carbon jet fuel. The partners say they are ready to hit the market now that a revised ASTM International fuel standard allows 10% blends of Amyris’s sugar-derived farnesene.

The technologies behind alternative jet fuels are maturing, says Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. But now the concern is how to ramp up production and lower costs. Flint’s organization is pressing for more government incentives to make investing in facilities less risky.

IATA members have committed to a cap on net CO2 emissions starting in 2020 and a 50% reduction by 2050 relative to 2005 levels. And the European Union has already initiated a pricey carbon trading scheme for European airlines.

“Aviation is the only industry to make global commitments to reduce carbon emissions,” Flint points out. “The airline and biofuel industries have done a lot of the heavy lifting with certifying and testing. But airlines are not farmers—we can’t produce this stuff ourselves.”



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