Race for scale: United, Alaska Airlines launch commercial aviation biofuels flights

November 7, 2011 |

 

Continental Airlines inaugurates the era of US aviation biofuels in this 2009 test flight at Houston's Bush International Airport

United and Solazyme, Alaska and Dynamic Fuels hook up, as producers scramble to make fuel, raise cash, ratchet down costs.

Will producers scale, or fail?

 

In recent weeks, aviation biofuel enthusiasts have noted the commencement of biofuels-powered commercial flights in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico, and asked when the US-developed technology would finally operate on a commercial basis in the US. Alaska Airlines stepped up to answer the call in partnership with Dynamic Fuels, only to find that United has teamed up with Solazyme to snatch the prize for first flight.

This morning in Texas, United Airlines will operate the first U.S. commercial flight powered by advanced biofuel, utilizing Solazyme Solajet fuel, on Monday, November 7.

UA Flight 1403 will depart from United’s hub at Bush Intercontinental Airport (the heart of big oil) and fly to the airline’s hub at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The aircraft is a United Boeing 737-800 Eco-Skies aircraft, and Continental pilots will be at the helm.

The flight departs Bush at 10:25 am CT from terminal C, and lands at Chicago O’Hare at 1:01pm CT, typically arriving at United’s Terminal 1.

The fuel, produced by Solazyme, is a 40/60 blend of sustainable biofuel and traditional petroleum-derived jet fuel. Solazyme’s renewable oils were upgraded into Solafuel by Honeywell’s UOP.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, Alaska Airlines will launch the first commercial, biofuel-powered regularly scheduled flight service in the United States on Wednesday, November 9th.  The flights will run from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and between Seattle and Portland. The maiden flight will leave Seattle on November 9 to Washington, D.C.

Alaska Airlines will fly 75 commercial passenger flights in the United States, in this series, powered by biofuel. Alaska Airlines and its sister carrier, Horizon Air, will continue to operate select flights between Seattle and the two cities over the next few weeks using a 20 percent blend of sustainable biofuel made from used cooking oil that meets rigorous international safety and sustainability standards.

“This is a historic week for U.S. aviation. The 75 flights that Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air will fly over the next few weeks reflect our longstanding commitment to environmental responsibility and our belief that sustainable biofuels are key to aviation’s future,” Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer said. “Commercial airplanes are equipped and ready for biofuels. They will enable us to fly cleaner, foster job growth in a new industry, and can insulate airlines from the volatile price swings of conventional fuel to help make air travel more economical. What we need is an adequate, affordable and sustainable supply. To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it.”

Used cooking oil – fry, the friendly skies

The flights – using a 20 percent biofuel blend, produced by Dynamic Fuels from made used cooking oil. Alaska’s 75 flights are a major step in showing the long-term feasibility of sustainable biofuels and will introduce Alaska’s customers to the next generation of clean fuels.

It’s just about the ultimate renewable fuel feedstock – waste veggie oil, that is.  But there’s only so much used cooking oil around. Long-term, it’s a key smaller component, but not a major driver of aviation biofuels at scale.

You’ve come a long way, baby

Just two years ago, Continental Airlines, also departing from Bush Intercontinental, operated the first US-based aviation biofuels test flight, using an aviation biofuel made up of 50 percent conventional fuel, 47 percent jatropha from Terasol, and 3 percent algae-based biofuel from Sapphire, working in partnership with UOP.

In June, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial flight carrying 171 passengers on aviation biofuels. Flight KL1233 – a Boeing 737-800 – took off this afternoon at 12:30 hours from Schiphol bound for Charles de Gaulle in Paris carrying 171 passengers.

In July, Thomson Airways announced that it will fly its Birmingham to Palma on 28th July 2011 using sustainable aviation biofuels supplied by the KLM fuel consortium, SkyNRG. This will be the first commercial flight from the UK flown using aviation biofuels.

Also in July, In Germany, Lufthansa became the world’s first airline to offer routine flights powered by biofuel. The airline now operates four daily round trips between Hamburg and Frankfurt. The Airbus A321 planes will use a biofuel blend of 50 percent hydrotreated renewable jet fuel made from feedstocks such as inedible plants and wood chips.

Later that month, Finnair announced plans to operate flights powered by biofuel. The airline will operated a biofuel flight between Amsterdam Schiphol and Helsinki in the week of July 18th, using either an Airbus A319 or A320 aircraft. Both engines ran on a 50 percent blend of biofuel produced from recycled vegetable oil and kerosene, and were refuelled at Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

In September, Mexico’s largest airline, Aeromexico, began using a 25 percent biofuel mixture on its flights from Mexico City to San Jose, Costa Rica.

In October, Spanish national airline Iberia Lineas Aereas de Espana SA flew the country’s first commercial flight using a 25% blend of biojet fuel made from camelina. The inaugural flight using an Airbus A320 flew from Madrid to Barcelona.

Last week, Air China in partnership with Boeing, conducted China’s first sustainable biofuel flight. The two-hour mainland flight from Beijing Capital International Airport was witnessed by officials from both countries and highlights the viability of using sustainable aviation biofuel sourced in China. PetroChina, working with Honeywell’s UOP, sourced and refined the China-grown, jatropha-based biofuel.

Aviation: a Quick Win for clean energy, biofuels

In Copenhagen last month, a coalition of companies and associations involved in aviation biofuels made a strong case for the sector not only as a quick win for biofuels, but as a quick win for clean energy as a whole.

Pitching Martin Lidegaard, the incoming Danish Minister for Climate, Energy and Building over a working lunch, Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group made the quick win case.

“Aviation is hard at work with a spectrum of activities to reduce environmental impact. But we see aviation biofuels as a quick win. First, we have just 1700 airports as fuel points, versus distributing to and possibly retrofitting hundreds of thousands of gas stations around the world. Second, aviation biofuels involve no infrastructure change – they drop right into the existing engines. Third, you have a sector that has done everything it can to do the flight tests, the certifications, sustainability groups, and even participating with investment in biofuels, to stimulate production.”

The case is strong. To convert 20 percent of road transport around the world to biofuels  – a threshold most would describe as a major clean energy “win” – would take a transformative infusion of capital, and require the aggregation of as much as 1.5 billion tons of biomass. The impact? Transformative. The logistics? Daunting. The timelines? Awfully long for a public which feeds on 24-hour news cycles and 1-2 year product life cycles.
By contrast, converting 20 percent of aviation to biofuels would transform modern aviation, be a major signal that clean energy can work at scale, and offers a model for developing R&D, certification and supply chain consortia. It would take around 12 billion gallons of biofuels, and perhaps 120 million tons of biomass, distributed to 1700 or so airports around the world.

Opportunities for scale

Companies that are producing aviation biofuels in test or commercial quantities include a who’s who from the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy: Solazyme, Amyris, Sapphire Energy, Rentech, Gevo, Terrabon, Cobalt Technologies, ZeaChem and LanzaTech. Solazyme has inked a deal with Qantas, Rentech has an off take agreement with 13 airlines. LanzaTech signed up with Virgin Airlines in recent weeks, while Gevo has hooked up with United and Cobalt is producing test quantities of fuel for the US Navy.

In California, AltAir Fuels plans to build a biojet plant in Bakersfield that will begin producing fuel in 2012. As a result, farmers in the Central and San Joaquin valleys are being encouraged to grow 25,000 acres of camelina under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

Solena, meanwhile, has inked deals with SAS, Qantas and British Airways to develop small commercial facilities producing 14-19 million gallons of aviation biofuels from municipal waste in Sweden, Australia and the UK, and in July said that it expects to put in a planning application in Gilroy, California for construction of its first biojet facility sometime within the coming year. The company says it still has a lot of development work to do on details and consultations with the community before it asks for permission to build the 16 million gallon per year, $350 million facility.

The race for low cost: who might win in the race for scale?

To make affordable jet fuel at scale (say, 50 million gallons as a reference plant), someone is going to have to produce alcohol fuel at $1.25-$1.50 per gallon, or renewable oils at around $2.50-$3.00 per gallon, and haul in something like 500,000 tons of biomass. That’s sourced from 625,000 acres or so of camelina, 75,000 acres of switchgrass or miscanthus, about 25,000 acres of hybrid poplar, or 15,000 acres of algae.

Who has production costs and capacities in that range in the near term, say by the time alcohol-to-jet is expected to be approved in 2014?  On paper, there’s Solena, Joule, Coskata, LanzaTech, Algenol,  ZeaChem, and Rentech. Joule needs to get its major demo running, and then is looking to scale in New Mexico.  ZeaChem, Coskata, and LanzaTech  are furiously on the hustings to secure financing for scale. Solena’s path to financing is still not fully clear, either. Now, Renetch just raised a lot of dollars in the spin-off of Rentech  Nitrogen, enough for a scale-up in Mississippi. Leaving Algenol as a wild-card – could they lay in 15,000 acres or so of capacity by 2015? If so, they are a dark horse to grab first mover advantage in this key segment.

Gevo, Solazyme, LS9 and Amyris off take will be generally shunted elsewhere for some time to come – too many upside opportunities elsewhere. Sapphire Energy will be scaling up later in the decade. Companies like Enerkem, Terrabon, Bluefire, POET and Abengoa are more likely to focus on the road transport sector for now. Other companies like Byogy will be brining forward development timelines in the near future, but their path to scale and low-cost is not yet known.

How do you make jet fuel from alcohol?

We look at that, here.

The feedstock dilemma

Try here.

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