Boeing, United, USDA and Navy hope to power Midwest flights with biofuels

June 28, 2013

By: Alan Yu

Photo courtsey of UNITED AIRLINES
United will start using biofuels on its flights out of Los Angeles in 2014. It hopes to do something similar in Chicago.

The Midwest could fuel its planes with biofuels in the future, according to a report released by Boeing, United Airlines and other partners on Thursday.

A year ago, Boeing and United joined the Chicago Department of Aviation, technology licensor Honeywell’s UOP and the Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit trying to develop clean energy for the Midwest, in announcing a plan towards growing plants for jet fuel in the region. That culminated in the report released Thursday. The groups based their initiative, called the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative, in the Midwest because it is already a hub for airlines and agriculture. They are pursuing aviation biofuels for the potential environmental and economic benefits.

For instance, every 5 percent of traditional jet fuel that can be replaced by biofuels will create 3,600 jobs and avoid 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the report. It made this green change seem less radical, said Billy Glover, vice president for environmental policy at Boeing.

“At first, when the question was asked, ‘Is it crazy or is it possible,’ my response was, it’s probably crazy,” Glover said. “But then we took a look at it and it is not only possible, it’s very attractive.”

However, the airline and biofuel industries still need to overcome several obstacles before adopting biofuels for aircraft, said Seth Snyder, biofuels technology manager at Argonne National Laboratory and an advisor on the biofuel initiative.

For one, biofuels cost more than traditional jet fuel, Snyder said. Earlier this month, United announced it will use biofuels for their flights out of Los Angeles next year, and it is looking into similar plans for Chicago. The fuel it will buy in California is made from chemically-treated vegetable oils, and the product has been approved for commercial use. However, the vegetable oil costs as much, or more than the actual fuel itself. Biofuel researchers are investigating other sources of biofuels, such as agriculture waste or wood, but that would take more chemical processing and the technology isn’t ready for commercialization yet.

To deal with cost, potential investors need favorable government policies, similar to the subsidies in place for fossil fuels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current Renewable Fuel Standards call for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022, and such policies need to stay in place.

“In Congress, there’s regular discussion that should be delayed or removed totally, and that actually scares away investors,” Snyder said.

At a summit to announce the report’s findings, representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Navy joined their civilian counterparts in declaring biofuels as the way forward for air travel.

For example, the Navy used a 50/50 biofuel blend to power its Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group that includes the U.S.S. Nimitz, in the world’s largest maritime exercise last summer, says Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. Hicks said that the Navy often takes the lead with adopting new technology, citing titanium and nuclear power as examples. He said civilians often follow their lead.

“As you look back over the history of the Navy, the history of the defense department, when we get involved in different technologies, those absolutely have commercial impact,” Hicks said. “And (aviation biofuels) is something that we see going forward, as these fuels can be entered into the commercial market and be cost competitive, that this will just part of the new normal for the Navy in the future.”

Hicks also echoed the report in saying the Midwest’s role in agriculture will translate to a competitive advantage in biofuel production.

“The Midwest has always had a key role in being the breadbasket of the United States,” he said. “I think that will play out into being the energy breadbasket of the United States.”