Aviation biofuel industry expanding in US

Author: Annalise Little


alaska airlines biofuel
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is among the first in the US poised to curb carbon emissions on a large scale with jet biofuel. (Image: Port of Seattle/Alaska Airlines) 

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Boeing, Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle this week signed an agreement to launch a study that will work toward a long-term goal of utilising aviation biofuel in all flights in and out of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac).

The $250,000 Biofuel Infrastructure Feasibility Study will be managed by the port and finished toward the end of 2016. It will examine costs and upgrades needed to create a system that will deliver a blend of regular jet fuel and aviation biofuel to the airport.

Conventional jet fuel recently has fallen to 11-year low prices, which could make the more sustainable but also more costly aviation biofuel less attractive to some would-be buyers. Conversely, the project partners have noted that the volatility of oil prices could make aviation biofuel more attractive. A UN board hopes to adopt international emissions standards for the aviation industry early in 2016.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aims for the US to use 1bn gal/year of sustainable alternative jet fuel by 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed in June to add jet fuel to the Clean Air Act, putting it on the list of greenhouse gas contributors.

In the Sea-Tac project, Boeing, which has a large presence both in Washington state and in the developing biofuels industry, said on Wednesday that it will provide knowledge about fuel types, technology and producers. The commercial airplane producer hopes that aviation biofuel will account for 1% of global jet fuel demand by 2016.

Alaska Airlines has been in involved in the biofuel industry for years. Starting in 2011 the airline had flights with 20% aviation biofuel blends made from cooking oils and animal fats. In 2016, the airline plans to utilise alcohol-to-jet fuel and forest-industry waste fuels.

Other companies are making strides toward sustainable aviation fuels as well. FedEx and Southwest Airlines have both signed agreements with a biorefinery in Oregon in the past 15 months.

Colorado-based Red Rock Biofuels uses forest residue to create the fuel. The feedstock includes bark, pine needles and branches from timber and saw mill operations. The company reported that its first plant should turn about 140,000 dry tons of forest feedstock into 12m gal/year of renewable jet, diesel and naphtha fuel.

FedEx will take 48m gallons of the blended fuel at its Oregon hub beginning in 2017. Fedex says the fuel will be half-biofuel, half-conventional jet fuel. Southwest’s agreement includes 3m gal/year of the fuel, the first of which is expected to be delivered in 2016.

Another upcoming biofuels company called Fulcrum has reached an agreement with United Airlines this year. United invested $30m in the company, adding to a 2014 investment by Cathay Pacific Airlines, which is in a decade-long agreement with the biofuels company that involves 375m gallons of fuel. Fulcrum’s refinery will be built in northern Nevada.

The US Department of Energy will have involvement in several of these projects, along with the US Navy and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA created an initiative called Farm to Fly with Boeing and airline trade group Airlines for America.

"As leaders in aviation biofuels, this will send a signal to airlines and biofuel producers that Sea-Tac airport will be ready to integrate commercial-scale use of aviation biofuels," Port of Seattle Commissioner John Creighton said of the agreement on Wednesday.

"Biofuel infrastructure will make Sea-Tac airport an attractive option for any airline committing to use biofuel, and will assist in attracting biofuel producers to the region as part of a longer-term market development strategy," he added.  

Currently, conventional jet fuel at Sea-Tac comes from Anacortes, Washington, by pipeline and the airport does not have a redundant fuel supply in place. Sea-Tac used 451m gallons of fuel in 2014 and maintains about nine days of fuel supply at a time.

Pushback from the refining industry is likely, as it is common with renewable fuels. There is consistent friction between the American Petroleum Institute (API), which says renewable fuels are bad for gasolines and engines. The Renewable Fuels Association supports ethanol being blended into motor fuels.

fuel farm
The tank farm at Sea-Tac can hold up to nine days of jet fuel for the airport at one time. (Image: Port of Seattle/Alaska Airlines)

Focus article by Annalise Little


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