Biofuels have the potential to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 80%, according to the International Air Transport Association, but that works only if the biofuel industry can scale up to commercial production and scale down prices. U.S. airlines guzzle 18 billion gal. of jet fuel annually—just shy of 10% of the U.S.’s total fossil-fuel use—at a cost of $50 billion, or 25% to 35% of their operating costs. Switching to biofuels would increase jet-fuel costs substantially. When Alaska Airlines debuted its first commercial biofuel-powered flight late last year, it paid six times the cost of traditional jet fuel. United’s biofuel was four times as costly.
While the major airlines may compete for passengers, they have a common interest in developing the biofuel industry: they share a fuel supply chain. The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Michael Huerta, notes that U.S. airlines purchase 90% of their fuel at only 40 airports. No matter what material is used to create jet biofuel—the camelina plant, lab-grown algae, cooking oil or other biofeedstock—the finished product has to be used in the same 50-50 mix with petroleum-based fuel. That centralized infrastructure, Huerta says, “should lead aviation to be a first mover in the deployment of alternative fuels.” He hopes the industry will have 1 billion gal. of sustainable fuel in use by 2018.
Photo Credit of algae based aviation fuel