By Julie Bonnin
Green Right Now
The first commercial air test flights using biofuels took to the sky earlier this month: First Air New Zealand, then Continental Airlines gave us a glimpse of a greener way to fly with a biofuel test flight on Jan. 7 at Bush Continental Airport in Houston.
Next up: Japanese Airline, JAL has announced a demonstration flight using a Boeing 747-300 powered by biofuel set for Jan. 30 in Tokyo.
Jennifer Holmgren is General Manager of Renewable Energy & Chemicals for Honeywell’s UOP, a refining technology developer which partnered with Continental on its landmark project. One week later, she was a keynote speaker at Petrotech 2009, an international oil and gas conference hosted by the Indian government, on the topic of emerging technologies (the conference ends Thursday).
We asked Holmgren to elaborate on the development of biofuels for commercial airlines.
Q. What factors are coming together for these test flights to be happening at this particular time?
A. The aviation industry is motivated to find a solution and diversify its fuel supply. We are all eager to prove that a sustainable biofuels solution exists and could make an impact to commercial aviation as soon as 2012. Today the technology to convert biological resources to fuel exists, and technology to cultivate and process various sustainable feed stocks is nearer than many think.
Q. How long until sustainable raw materials will be available in a quantity that makes biofuel viable for commercial aviation?
A. We believe that sources like jatropha and camelina (non-edible, oilseed crops that require little to no irrigation and can be grown in areas food crops won’t grow) will be available in commercial scale quantities within the next three years. Technology to produce algae in commercial scale quantities is a little farther out – more like eight to 10 years. Events like the Continental flight help to keep motivation and momentum around developing these technologies and are gathering the data that will be needed for aircraft certification.
Q. As your business and others wait for those markets to turn, what kinds of things will you be trying to accomplish in the intervening years?
UOP is working to develop a complete portfolio of technology for renewable energy and chemicals. We have already introduced and licensed a process to produce green diesel fuel and are also leveraging a joint venture with the Canadian business Ensyn to offer technology and equipment to convert second-generation biomass like forest and agricultural wastes into oil for power generation, heating fuel. The joint venture will also accelerate research and development for technology that will convert this pyrolysis oil into transportation fuels like diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.
Q. You have said production levels (for biomass jet fuel) could reach hundreds of millions of gallons per year by 2012. What are some of the ways companies will ensure that overall environmental impact of production and delivery is minimal?
A. The UOP renewable jet fuel process is modeled after traditional hydroprocessing technology that has been used in refineries for more than 50 years to produce transportation fuels. Emissions from the renewable process are comparable to the tradition petroleum-based process. The key to realizing greenhouse gas emission reductions is the use of sustainable second-generation feedstock sources. The source for the fuel must be cultivated and harvested in manners that do not tax valuable food, land or water resources.
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