After decades of waiting, commercial airlines have been given the go-ahead to use fuel made from algae, wood chips and other plants with obscure names. Test flights in recent years by Continental, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have shown that planes can fly on everything from coconut oil to jatropha, a plant that grows in the tropics.
On July 1, ASTM International, a US organization that sets worldwide technical standards for airlines and other industries, gave approval for carriers to mix fuel made from organic waste and non-food plants with kerosene, which is conventionally used to power planes.
A lot of companies have been waiting for the certification, said Mark Rumizen, fuel specialist at the Federal Aviation Administration. It's going to drive a lot of investment.
Airbus, which together with Boeing makes about 80% of the world's passenger planes, estimates that by 2030 plant-derived formulas could make up as much as 30% of the market for aviation fuel. Even so, it may take as long as five years before bio-fuels are cost competitive, says Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing's commercial airplanes unit.
Pressure is building on the airline industry to cut pollution. Aviation accounts for about 2% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, according to the International Air Transport Association. In 2012, carriers with European routes will have to participate in the European Union's cap-and-trade system for CO2 and will have to buy additional permits if they exceed limits set by the European Commission.
In the United States, the Energy Department, along with state agencies, has granted a total of 348 million US dollars in loans, grants and tax exemptions since 2004 for research centres, fuel producers and refiners.
The trick for airlines, plane makers and fuel suppliers will be figuring out which brew works best and producing it in large enough quantities so that costs begin to fall. Right now, the aviation industry is most focused on the so-called second generation of bio-fuels. These are made largely from inedible plants, so there's little risk that expanding production will drive up food prices, as happened with corn, which is used for ethanol.
ExxonMobil plans to steer 600 million USD to a partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a La Jolla, California company that is experimenting with a type of algae that produces an oily substance good for burning. BP is conducting research on biobutanol, a fuel processed with the same bacteria used for making cordite, an explosive once used in firearms.
Boeing, Honeywell International and the US Air Force have tested at least 20 types of fuel derived from organic waste and plants such as jatropha and camelina, found in parts of Europe and North America, as well as organic material, including garbage.