Aviation leaders say biofuels still too expensive

July 27, 2021 |

By Cécile Michaut, Institut Polytechnique de Paris

Special to The Digest

Aviation is counting on the use of biofuels and petrol-free synthetic fuels to reduce carbon emissions. Technically it is possible, but some say it’s still too expensive. Hear from Samuel Saysset, Lead techno advisor at ENGIE Research; Jean-Philippe Héraud, Process engineer at IFP Energies Nouvelles; Paul Mannes, director of Total Aviation, in charge of the worldwide business line; and Jérôme Bonini, Research and Technology Director, Safran aircraft engines and how realistic and feasible biofuels are for the aviation industry today.

In today’s Digest, Cécile Michaut from the Institut Polytechnique de Paris shares his analysis on what these 4 leaders have to say about biofuels, and more.

Key takeaways

  • Biofuels provide an option to help the aviation industry reduce its carbon footprint.
  • Current aeroplane models can run on jet fuel that contains 30-50% biokerosene.
  • To avoid competing with food supplies, biomass composed of waste and residue is the focus of industrial processes to produce biofuels.
  • At prices that are 1.5-2 times higher than kerosene, the cost remains a hurdle if biofuels are to remain competitive in comparison to fossil fuels.

Aviation is counting on the use of biofuels and petrol-free synthetic fuels to reduce carbon emissions. Technically, it is possible: “biofuel standards allow the incorporation of 30–50% biokerosene into current airplane models without modifying the engine,” says Jean-Philippe Héraud, BioTfueL project manager at IFP Énergies nouvelles (the former French Petroleum Institute).

However, so-called first-generation biofuels made from food crops (grains or sugar) are not recommended for use in sustainability projects. They compete with the food industry and can have a negative environmental overall when taking into account the life cycle. However, there is a place for second-generation biofuels made from forest residues, straw and biosourced waste.

Jean-Philippe Héraud says that “because France is a very green country, the resources for these biofuels exist. A major difficulty, however, comes from the mix of where the resources are located – as opposed to oil that arrives in France in only three ports. Hence, we need to know how to collect these widespread deposits and regroup the biomass so we can better transport it, whilst adapting to seasonal variations, too.”

Hence, IFPEN has carried out research into the indirect thermochemical conversion of biomass. The biomass is gasified to obtain a synthetic gas; a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2). After purification, this gas is transformed into a synthetic paraffin using a process known as Fischer Tropsch. “We have demonstrated the feasibility of the BioTfueL project, now we have to turn it into an industrial reality, » explains Jean-Philippe Héraud.

The cost of this biofuel is higher than that of kerosone made from fossil fuels, “between 1.5 and 2 times higher than equivalent fossil fuels before tax,” says Jean-Phillipe. “This extra cost varies according to the price of the raw material, the location and integration with sites undergoing conversion.” And he says that this is their challenge, “it seems difficult to make airline customers bear the burden without the risk of them turning away from air transport.”

Fuel represents about 25–30% of the price of a flight. “For a round trip from Paris to New York on an aircraft using 1% biofuel, the price of the ticket would increase by $5 per passenger,” explains Paul Mannes, director of aviation at Total. “For a flight using 10% biofuel, it’s ten times more, or about $50. So yes, the price could be a deterrent.”

It goes without saying that airlines will not raise ticket prices if they are not forced to do so. “The French government is working with the national companies concerned, such as Total, Airbus and Safran, to see how the SAF (Sustainable aviation fuel) industry could be developed, and the necessary legislation,” he says. For the moment, the projet des loi de finance includes an obligation to use 1% biofuels in 2022, 2% in 2025 and 5% by 2030, in order to keep pace with the increase in demand and the availability of SAF on the market.

Synthetic fuels

French Energy company, Engie, has launched a biomass pyrogasification project called Gaya. Wood is heated to high temperatures with very little oxygen, converting it into a mixture of gases: hydrogen, CO2, methane, carbon monoxide, which are then reorganised to form fuel. But here again, the price is high.

The other way to make fuel from non-oil-sourced sources are synthetic fuels derived from hydrogen, which itself comes from electricity. The principle: combine hydrogen with CO2 to obtain synthetic methane, the precursor of other fuels, called ekerosene. “We know how to produce this ekerosene,” says Samuel Saysset, chief technical advisor at Engie. “South Africa, in particular, developed this know-how during Apartheid when there was an embargo on petroleum products. The main concern now is the economics of the sector: ekerosene is more expensive.”

Read the full article here

About the Author

Cécile Michaut holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Paris-XI Orsay. She was a lecturer for two years before branching off into science journalism in 1999. Her collaborations include Le Monde, La Recherche, Pour la Science, Science et vie, Sciences et Avenir, Environnement Magazine… She also teaches science communication and media training for several research organisations and universities. She founded the company Science et partage (www.scienceetpartage.fr), and published the book “Vulgarisation scientifique, mode d’emploi” (EDP Sciences) in 2014.

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