By Sarah-Jane Tasker
Australia needs to close key gaps in the value chain to develop further the use of biofuels in the aviation sector, a leading expert has warned.
With certified pathways to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) now in place, the industry is moving to commercialisation of biofuels, and Susan Pond, chairwoman of the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, believes Australia has a role to play.
Dr Pond said the move to increase the use of biofuels presented the challenge of piecing together the SAF value chain in a way that enabled it to compete with fossil jet fuel, as well as other renewable transport fuels and the biochemical industry.
"Key gaps in the value chain need to be addressed in Australia," she said. "These include feedstock supply and cost, refining capacity, unlocking capital for at-scale projects and stable policy settings that level the playing field."
Australia does not produce any sustainable aviation fuels at this stage but many airlines around the globe have conducted test flights with biofuel. Lufthansa and United Airlines have used them in scheduled commercial fights over several months. United Airlines announced this month it had secured a purchase agreement with AltAir Fuels for biofuels at commercial scale.
The airline will buy 68 million litres of lower-carbon, renewable jet fuel over a three-year period, with an option to buy more.
United will use the biofuel on flights operating out of its Los Angeles hub.
Biodiesel is commonly made from vegetable oils and recycled grease such as used cooking oil, but other feedstocks, such as algae, pongamia trees and dryland juncea, are being developed.
In Australia, Qantas in April last year fuelled one engine of an A330 operating a commercial return flight from Sydney to Adelaide with a 50:50 blend of biofuel made from used cooking oil.
"Although off to a good start, the aviation biofuels industry is still at an early stage in terms of techno-economic feasibility and production scale," Dr Pond said.
"Commercial production will be achieved when the cost of the fuel is equivalent to conventional jet fuel and the fuel meets not only ASTM certification but also sustainability standards."
Internationally and in Australia, the commercial aviation industry is committed to the use of sustainable aviation fuels. The International Air Transport Association has set the goals of carbon neutral growth beyond 2020 and a 50 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, compared with 2005.
"It is taking the two-pronged approach of improving fuel efficiency and introducing SAF," Dr Pond said.
"Both approaches are equally critical. The US Department of Defence is also taking a very proactive stance, having announced its formal target of sourcing 25 per cent of its energy, including its energy from liquid fuels such as jet fuel and diesel, by 2025."
Ian Thomas, president of Boeing Australia, said his company was focused on sustainable aviation biofuels, adding that he did not believe government subsidies were needed to progress the use of the renewable fuel source.
"We have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that sustainable aviation biofuels work," he told The Australian's panel discussion on the aviation sector.
He said while there would be a role for government, handouts were not needed.
"There are ways to do this that are very sustainable, efficient and will have a huge and enduring impact on the health of the industry and the health of the environment," he said.
Dr Pond said ideally, the CO2 footprint of biofuels would be 80 per cent less than the conventional jet fuel footprint.
"This reduction must be calculated based on the entire biofuel production life cycle, taking into account the emissions saved by recycling atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis and the emissions released throughout the production, transport and processing of biomass and when the fuel is combusted in the aircraft engine," she said.
"The net emissions are then compared to those released by conventional jet fuel."
This article was originally published at The Australian