ATSE Focus

By Susan Pond

Australia should develop a sustainable aviation fuels industry to underpin Australian aviation and add to the diversity, strength and security of the national economy. Commercial aviation is indispensible to Australia. The industry has facilitated domestic economic growth and international trade, investment and tourism. The number of passenger movements through Australian airports reached 54.5 million in 2011 and is expected to grow by at least four per cent a year over the next 20 years.

The industry is growing in a complex business environment with many bustling intersections, including the complete reliance of jet engines on liquid fuel and the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, aviation accounts for two to three per cent of CO2 emissions, derived predominantly from burning jet fuel (Jet A or Jet A-1 kerosene).

In 2009, The International Air Transport Association adopted a set of targets: carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020; an average annual improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 per cent a year to 2020; and reduction in CO2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2050.

The emissions reductions will need to be achieved in large part by the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). SAF are derived from waste streams or renewable biomass, have a low carbon emission life cycle relative to fossil fuels, meet accepted sustainability criteria, ‘drop in’ to existing fuel supplies and are compatible with old and new aircraft. The volumetric and gravimetric energy densities and other properties of SAF (lubrication, flash point etc) are identical in effect to the petroleum fuels on which current aircraft design and performance depend.

Production of SAF is already technically feasible. In July 2011, ASTM International approved revisions to D7566, the safety specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesised Hydrocarbons. The revisions allow use of a 50:50 blend of petroleum jet fuel with synthetic components manufactured from hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) produced from renewable sources including oilseed crops and microalgae. 

Several other processes to produce SAF, including pyrolysis and alcohol to jet, are progressing through ASTM qualification. Multiple pathways will be required to ensure the SAF supply required to meet IATA’s targets.

On 7 November 2011, a commercial United Airlines flight from Houston to Chicago with 189 passengers was powered by a blend of algal oil and petroleum jet fuel. Many other airlines have flown demonstration flights of biofuels. Qantas and Virgin Australia have announced plans for feasibility studies of SAF from various sources.

Airlines will adopt SAF when they achieve cost parity with jet fuel. Cost parity will add significant additional motivations to use SAF and drive industry demand. These include the potential to exert greater control on fuel costs (40 to 50 per cent of direct operating costs of an airline) and security of supply. These motivations are leading the US Department of Defense to purchase SAF at prices above cost parity. Cost curves will fall rapidly as SAF plants come on line and supply chains mature.

The year 2011 provided important signals from the private and public sectors in Australia that the inherent attributes of the aviation industry — vital service, unified vision, concentrated fuel purchasing and distribution, dependence on liquid fuels, stringent fuel qualification specifications and technically adept customers — create the opportunity to take a leadership position in alternative fuels.

The industry-led Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group released its report Flight Path to Sustainable Aviation. It concluded that Australia had sufficient biomass to support a SAF industry that would bring significant economic, social and environmental benefits. The Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (DRET) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the US Department of Transport to work collaboratively on SAF. The US-based private-public coalition, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), is a major partner with Australian counterparts in the implementation of the work plan.

DRET released the Summary Report Advanced Biofuels Study: Strategic Directions for Australia. It highlights Australia’s comparative advantages for establishment of a SAF industry, including world-class expertise in agricultural science and large-scale agricultural production, the innovative Australian companies with demonstration or early commercial projects, and the potential economic benefits, including job creation and new economic activity in rural and regional areas.

The report emphasised the challenges, particularly: the complexities associated with simultaneous and collaborative development of the entire supply chain from feedstock to fuel and co products; lack of local refining capacity; and developing coherent and consistent policy and regulation. 

Australia can develop large-scale transformative industries and should meet these challenges. We will only fail to develop a significant SAF industry if we procrastinate or limit our vision, aspirations and growth horizons.