On the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week*, European energy journalist Karel Beckman, university biologist Joanne Manaster, and I got to have a conversation with a member of Boeing leadership who has been working on what seems to be a genuine breakthrough in the biofuel arena, and in the energy arena in general. There are a few very exciting things about the development, and some super interesting side notes, so take your time and be sure to read this piece carefully!
I’ve summarized all the key points in text below, but also included at the bottom of this article is an audio recording of the entire conversation we had with Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing. Thanks to Karel for kindly sharing that, and thanks to Darrin for allowing us to record him.
First of all, let me say that I have hardly covered biofuels in the past couple of years because I more or less gave up on them as a genuinely sustainable and cost-competitive near-term solution to our climate, pollution, and resource scarcity crises. Algae biofuels look like they won’t be cost competitive until the mid to late 2020s at the earliest, if ever. Meanwhile, cellulosic biofuels seem to have many of the same critical drawbacks as first-generation biofuels.
Two of the biggest drawbacks of conventional (1st-generation) and cellulosic biofuels are that they require a tremendous amount of freshwater and arable land for their production. These resources are basic necessities of human life. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply for over a billion people.
The new biofuel Boeing and partners have developed skirts those issues completely. But I’ll get back to that after another interesting backstory, one I was not aware of.
Oil Problems… Including Problems For Airliners
While the biofuel backstory is pretty well-known, some important parts of the oil backstory are new to me, and surely many or all of you. We all know that burning oil for energy is a leading cause of globe warming, that oil security issues and wars are a major harm to society, and that oil resource scarcity and price spikes are also a continuous threat to society. All of these issues alone would have companies like Boeing looking for a sustainable, cost-competitive fuel alternative. But something else also has Boeing looking for an alternative to petroleum — the quality of today’s oil supply.
Unconventional oil production from tar sands and shale oil have boosted US and global oil production just as conventional oil fields have have been running dry. However, a variety of chemicals are used in these more complicated and dirtier production processes. Boeing and other air transport companies have found that the chemicals in these unconventional oils cause problems for their engines. They reduce efficiency and lead to other complications. You might think that Boeing and its colleagues in the airline industry could convince oil companies to work on solutions to these problems, but according to Darrin (who I’ll remind you is the director of sustainable aviation fuels at Boeing), in the grand scheme of things, airline companies aren’t a big enough portion of oil companies’ business in order to get that attention.
So, along with the typical concerns that come from burning oil, Boeing has been looking for a sustainable solution that will also perform better. Interestingly, counter to the early hype, Darrin noted that biofuels actually burn very cleanly and would be preferred over petroleum from a performance perspective.
Naturally, oil companies have not been big supporters of a switch to biofuels. Boeing and others in the air transport industry, however, eventually decided that they wanted to research ways that they could genuinely move beyond oil. As a result, in 2008, they created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. That seems to have been the seed of the biofuel breakthrough discussed below.
Boeing’s Biofuel Breakthrough
In recent years, Boeing has “happened across” a new type of biofuel, a biofuel with some amazing natural benefits. First of all, the biofuel comes from a type of plant — halophytes — that can grow in the desert, not taking up valuable arable land. Furthermore, these halophytes can be irrigated with saltwater, again solving one of the main downsides of conventional biofuels — their tremendous freshwater needs. For these reasons and others, it seems that halophyte biofuels can be produced at a low, competitive cost.
Notably, this big discovery wasn’t made purely by accident. Several years ago, when Boeing decided that it wanted to find a better fuel source than oil or conventional biofuels, it aimed to find a fuel that was genuinely sustainable. It didn’t want to run into the problems with powerful stakeholders or the environment that corn ethanol ran into. Sustainability was the focus all the way down to design. When Boeing ran across the possibility of creating biofuel from these unique halophytes, back in 2009, it found that there were actually no patents related to such a process (globally). Can you imagine the feeling? Boeing then started the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi, partnering with Masdar Institute, Etihad Airways, and Honeywell’s UOP to work on researching the biofuel’s potential.
News has gotten even better since then, in a couple of ways:
1) Aquaculture has been growing worldwide as a solution to rapidly declining fish stocks in open waters. However, aquaculture comes with at least one big problem — it produces a tremendous waste stream. Interestingly, halophytes, can actually use aquaculture waste as a feedstock.
2) A key process in creating biofuel from cellulosic plants is separating the lignin from the sugars (the sugars are what get converted into fuel). About six months ago, Boeing and crew (corny pun intended) discovered that this process was actually much easier with halophytes than it was with other cellulosic plants used for biofuel.
Science is all fun and games, of course, but the real question is: what’s the cost? Can this halophyte biofuel play in the big leagues? The expectation is that it really can, and within just 4-5 years.
A pilot facility (a couple hectares in size) is being built in Abu Dhabi for testing that will start in 2015. That testing is supposed to go on for about 2 years, but if all goes well, a larger facility (500 hectares in size) could go up before that first test period is finished — in 1–3 years. Optimistically, commercial production (thousands and thousands of hectares) would start soon after — perhaps 4–5 years from now, according to Darrin.
Just to clarify, I asked if this biofuel would be cost-competitive at that time. Indeed, that is the expectation.
Biggest Biofuel Breakthrough To Date?
Darrin’s concluding remark in our short time together seems on the money to me: “This, to me, is the biggest breakthrough that there is out there.” (In biofuels, that is.)
By the way, while the biofuel is being developed by members of the airline industry, the vision is that it will also be useful for ground transport.
Stay tuned — I’m soon going to dig into this story a bit more in a video interview with Darrin. If you have any questions you want me to ask at that time, drop them in the comments below!
For those of you who were good enough to make it to the end of this post, here’s a full recording of our talk with Darrin:
Image Credits: Masdar Institute
*Full disclosure: Masdar covered my trip to Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.