By Steve Creedy
Australia has the building blocks of an advanced aviation biofuel industry with the advantage of airlines keen to buy it if it can be made economically.
But it will need international investment, including from Big Oil, and continued government involvement to get it through the risky emerging industry stage, according to one of the nation's top biofuel experts.
"We have to bring in international investors, which is not a bad thing because they're good strategic partners and increase the discipline of the whole commercialisation process," said Susan Pond, chairwoman of the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels. "Much of the capital we require to invest in and build bio refineries will come from international sources."
The AISAF is a public-private partnership between the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism and the industry, which aims to advance sustainable aviation fuel in Australia.
Professor Pond, of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, believes a two-day biofuel conference at the Australian International Air Show at Avalon in Geelong last week that attracted 10 international speakers demonstrated the interest in Australian biofuels. They included representatives of biofuel companies, aircraft manufacturers and government agencies, including defence.
"In Australia, we've done our strategic planning, we know we've got opportunities, in the form of our biomass and our capacity to complete large-scale projects," Professor Pond said.
One challenge, Professor Pond said, was a lack of long-term financing. It was here that there was a place for government and overseas investors. Oil companies also would have to bring their assets to avoid the need to rebuild refineries.
Professor Pond said the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism had made aviation fuel a strategic priority and understood it would take government involvement at the proof-of-concept and early commercialisation stages.
Government involvement in biofuels centres on the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, set up in 2011, and its renewable energy venture capital fund, Southern Cross Venture Partners. There is also the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corp, which might not survive a change in government.
"It's a new industry," Professor Pond said. "It's risky and it won't be bankable in the conventional sense at this early stage."
On the private side, both of Australia's big airlines are keen to develop a sustainable jet fuel industry and have their irons in several biofuel fires.
Qantas has been working with Solena Fuels since early 2011 to investigate the feasibility of building a commercial jet biofuel plant in Sydney similar to a British Airways plant in London.
The aim would be to convert commercial waste to biofuel using a $300m plant based on the Fischer-Tropsch process that makes jet fuel from coal in South Africa and gas in Qatar.
The British Airways plant is due to come online next year and will convert up to 500,000 tonnes of waste a year into 73 million litres of "green" jet fuel, enough to power 2 per cent of BA's Heathrow base. It will use food scraps and other household material, such as grass and tree cuttings, as well as agricultural and industrial waste, as a feedstock for the fuel.
The flying kangaroo, which staged biofuel flights last year, also has been working with US company Solazyme, which produces oil using single-cell algae as a biocatalyst in industrial fermentation process treating feedstock such as sugarcane bagasse.
Virgin Australia has partnered with Renewable Oil Corporation, GE and the Future Farm Industries CRC to develop a renewable jet fuel derived from West Australian mallee trees using a technique called fast pyrolysis, through which feedstocks are liquefied and broken down to basic organic building blocks under high temperature to produce crude biofuel.
It also has teamed with NSW biofuel company Licella on its unique one-step catalytic hydrothermal reactor technology to produce high-quality bio-crude oil from a biomass such as farm waste.
While the airlines are keen to parade their environmental credentials, they readily admit they are not just driven by a desire to cut greenhouse emissions.
"Airlines see the possibility of another fuel source as a way to hedge their bets on costs," Professor Pond said. "If they can have long-term stable off-take agreements from another fuel provider, they have bargaining power with fossil fuel providers.
"Also, a long-term contract at known prices gives them a more predictable future in contrast to the volatile oil market."
While hydro-treated renewable fuels and those produced by the Fischer-Tropsch process have been approved for use in aircraft by certifying agency ATSM International, other processes yet to get the nod such as alcohol-to-jet and fast pyrolysis could prove a big boost for Australia.
Alcohol-to-jet, which Professor Pond believed was likely to be certified by late next year or early 2015, allows a company to take a waste or renewable feedstock through to an alcohol such as ethanol or butanol, then remove the oxygen atoms and produce longer chain hydrocarbon fuels such as jet fuel. Whichever process is used, the potential pay-off is considerable if the industry can bridge the gap between small demonstration plants and commercial production facilities.
The CSIRO's Flight Path to Sustainable Aviation report in 2011 estimated that an Australasian bio-derived jet fuel industry could generate 12,000 jobs across the next two decades and reduce the nation's reliance on fuel imports by $2 billion annually.
The report said the industry could decrease aviation sector greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent and that there was enough biomass in Australia and New Zealand to supply 46 per cent of the industry's fuel needs by 2020 and all of it by 2050.
Professor Pond pointed to the set of figures that underscored the need for a concerted global push on biofuels. The world last year consumed a staggering 89 billion barrels of liquid fuels a day or about 1032 barrels per second.
About 60 per cent of that fuel was used for transport, which accounted for 23 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. About 10 per cent of the transport fuel was used for aviation.
"Australia consumes about 1 per cent of the global supply of petroleum but a proportionately higher percentage of transport and aviation fuels.
"Unsurprisingly in Australia, because of the distances involved, aviation fuels consume relatively more of our transport fuel mix than in other countries.
"In 2010, aviation accounted for about 13 per cent. This is projected to rise to about 20 per cent by 2030 because other modes of transport will take up alternative energy options such as gas and electricity.
"The aviation sector will be dependent on the same liquid jet fuel for many decades. If the sector is to grow as projected, it has to turn its mind to renewable fuels, which don't have the same carbon footprint as fossil fuels."
The carbon footprint of fuel refers to the full life-cycle footprint that covers planting and growing the crop through to harvesting and transportation, the production process and burning it in an aircraft engine.
This raised another can of worms, Professor Pond said, "because you have to get your metrics, methods and facts right to meet what will be quite stringent environmental criteria before you can market it as a sustainable fuel".
"You have to make sure that the energy cost of converting low-energy dense materials into liquid fuel is not unfavourable."
The biofuel expert believed there was a huge potential for algae in Australia and said this was the focus of many of the local companies. Other promising feedstocks include lignocellulose, such as wood waste; and wheat straw and technologies such as fast pyrolysis show potential.
Professor Pond said the places where biomass could be aggregated most easily would determine where biofuel plants were located and that a state-by-state approach to biomass production systems would be the best way to establish reliable supply.
Ultimately, she said, it all came down to economics and life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.
"So if you're in Sydney, the feedstock will be landfill rather than an agricultural crop," Professor Pond said.
"In regional areas, forest waste or wheat straw, for example, will feed into a bio-refinery located within a 50km radius for processing at least to the first stage of a more energy-dense bio-crude.
"The bio-crude could then be transported to a centralised refinery that can produce a range of products including liquid fuels.
"Renewable aviation fuel will be marketed to distribution centres that service airports. Some regional feedstocks will not be available for aviation fuels because of the economics."
Professor Pond said airlines would be looking for a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions but she suspected this would take some time to achieve.
Current certification allows for up to a 50:50 mix of biofuel and conventionally derived jet fuel. It is likely to a considerable time before the industry has enough scale to meet even that mix.
"The percentage of renewable aviation fuel will probably start at 1 per cent and increase as more bio refineries come on line," Professor Pond said.
This article was originally published at The Australian