US, Australia sign key aviation biofuels accord

September 19, 2011 |

MOU covers feedstock readiness, sustainability, data sharing, fuels certification, plus development of new alternative fuel pathways in alcohol conversion, pyrolysis and synthetic biology.

Is the agreement, driven by the private sector and formalized by government, a template for agreements to foster aviation biofuels around the world?

In San Francisco, the U.S. FAA and Australia’s Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism have reached a Memorandum of Understanding to continue research and development of clean, sustainable alternative aviation fuels.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Australian Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley signed the agreement at the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Transport & Energy Ministers Ministerial Conference Summit meetings in San Francisco.

The MOU calls for Australia and the United States to exchange information about policies, programs, projects, research results, and publications, and to conduct joint studies in areas such as fuel sources and environmental impacts. The memorandum also facilitates analysis of fuel source supply chains.  The signing nations agree to cover the associated costs.

“Air travel is global and we need international partners to develop these innovative new fuels,” Secretary LaHood told reporters. “Our ultimate goal is to work with all of the Asia Pacific nations to achieve a sustainable, independent energy future for aviation, and this is an exciting first step.” 

The MOU enables Australia and the United States to exchange information on policies, programs, projects, and research results, and to conduct joint studies in areas such investigation of new fuel sources and conducting environmental impacts.

Aspects of significance

“From the government perspective, and what we choose as a framework for APEC,” CAAFI Executive Director Rick Altman said, “this agreement is fairly unique, in that you have the agreement being developed out of the private sector, and then they have brought this to the government to recognize and support – as opposed to the government developing this, and saying “here” to the private sector.”

Three aspects of the agreement should draw special attention from followers of bioenergy’s story arc.

1. Unlike other government to government agreements that emerge from time to time, this agreement sprung out of the private sector, primarily driven by the CAAFI private-public partnership in the US , and  Austrade and the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney, for Australia.

2. This agreement is “operational” not “aspirational” which makes it unique among other cross border activities in which the CAAFI coalition has been engaged in that their are discreet specifics that fill gaps in the overall global aviation biofuels efforts to which we can both make contributions.

3. This MOU can realistically form a template for efforts for in the Asia Pacific region as a whole, and other regions.

The origins of the agreement

Dr. Susan Pond of the US Studies Center recalls: “Rich Altman and I met in October last year through Austrade in DC, and at that time we hatched the idea of a forum at the Avalon Air Show, where we held seminars every day (before the jets drowned us out). In Australia, we saw a real appetite for connection internationally and particularly with US for aviation, and in fact a group had formed earlier under SAFUG (Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group) to start working on roadmap, with Boeing, Qantas, Virgin, GE and CSIRO involved, and in particular getting catalysis and knowledge from boeing.

“After Avalon, we had the idea of an MOU or an agreement between the US and Australia, which I presented to the Australian government in Canberra including people at the Ministry of Resources Energy & Tourism and Ministry of Transport. CAAFI, myself, FAA and Austrade had a meeting towards a more formal agreement at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in DC earlier this year, and as another part of the process we went to a prep meeting for APEC and put it on the APEC agreement agenda, and it was signed of the margins of the APEC meeting.”

CAAFI’s Rich Altman added: “There were discussions that predated this process, such as discussions between the Volpe Center and CSIRO. But we quickly identified areas to work together – road-mapping, scenario planning, and matching up feedstock with fuel suppliers. At the next CAAFI meeting in November we will put even more meat on the work plan.”

The key elements

Key elements in work plan for now include: scenario analysis, feedstock readiness, sustainability, data sharing, fuels certification, plus development on a variety of alternative fuel pathways, including fuels out of synthetic biology processing, alcohol to jet fuels, and fuels made from pyrolytic processes.

One of the areas of greatest concern and focus is feedstock readiness – there being around the world a sense that the aviation community has been able to advance on fuels testing and certification fare faster than the feedstock community has been able to ramp op on scale.

Feedstocks of interest

In the agreement, there is a focus on US technologies and Australian feedstocks. Besides the well-known focus on development of algal fuels in Australia, “the main feedstocks of interest are sugar,” observed Dr. Pond, “there’s a lot of bagasse that can be diverted. Also, oilseed crops, some of which are already grown, like mustard seed – as a break crop for soil as well as the oil benefit. Lignocellulosic crops are not used on an aggregated basis at this time, except for power. But that’s where CSIRO is especially good – they have done the mapping and aggregation to prepare for that sector.”

The Global Template

There’s an interest in duplicating this type of agreement,” said CAAFI’s Altman. “It was brought up in Sept meeting, and we could be working as early as March on something. As far as where this model would work, follow the feedstocks. There are feedstock rich regions throughout Southeast Asia  that fits the bill. Plus there are countries with a strong aviation industry component, for example, there may be interest in Japan, given the fact that the aircraft and engine partnerships are already in place there. Plus there are countries like Singapore, where you have the refining capacity. In that case, there’s been activity between FAA and Singapore, which has a strong aviation community and is surrounded by the feedstocks in the neighboring countries.”

The governmental role

“The government will have a very important educative role,” remarked Dr. Pond. “AUstralia is just now finalizing its alternative fuels strategy, but in general we know that agricultural subsidies, for example, are much greater in the US than in Australia and the industry will need to be pulled rather than pushed. So, education of the constituencies, such as farmers, will not work the same.”

Policy Stability

“Market forces are driving this sector,” said Altman, “and there are strong forces that will sustain this. For example, as prominent as aviation has become within the biofuels community, aviation consumes twice as much fuel relative to road transport in Australia than here. Plus, the depletion of oil refining capacity is much greater in Australia than here. And, its much easier to align the players – for example, it is very difficult to align commercial and military people in the EU, for historical reasons, but it is not an issue in Australia.

“I don’t see that the MOU would be cancelled” added Dr. Pond, “if there was a change in government. The carbon tax which is coming in will be so difficult to unwind if it is finally passed towards the end of the year, and the private aviation sector isn’t going to change. So the meta-policy environment is going to have a great deal driving it.”

“CAAFI started under the Bush Administration,” noted Altman, “and then continued and accelerated under the Obama administration. Usually, a new government comes in and looks for good ideas and seeks to embrace them. And we see that at the state level, too. Those states that are changing policy, are still looking to embrace initiatives like this. All governments want to be successful, and I suspect that applies to governments here or there.”

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