Published on January 27th, 2014 | by Zachary Shahan


Boeing Biofuel Breakthrough — This Is A BIG Deal (Interview With Boeing’s Biofuel Director)

January 27th, 2014 by  

boeing biofuel masdar instituteOn 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.

Biofuels Backstory

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.

halophytes biofuel

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.


Next Steps

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:

Also recommended:

Boeing Discovers Promising Biofuel At $3 Per Gallon

Biofuel from Desert Plants Set to Clean Up Aviation

New Initiative To Grow Jet Biofuel Supply Chain In UAE; Focus On Research, Feedstock Production And Refining Capability

Image Credits: Masdar Institute

*Full disclosure: Masdar covered my trip to Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Garry G.

    Bob below has a good question, but I’m also wondering since Boeing is here in the US will they be considering doing this in the SW of the United States? Great job creator and making use of desert lands, other than Burning Man.

  • rabs

    can these plants be grown out in the ocean?

  • UKGary

    There is a need with such systems to ensure that any fresh or brackish water aquifers are not compromised by salt water irrigation.

    Possibly better to cultivate indigenous succulents, (I believe prickly pear is being cultivated in some areas) and to irrigate them with water recovered from sewage treatment.

  • Zachary, outstanding piece; your excitement really comes through and I appreciate the spotlight on this new potential biotechnology. A few insights: one of the most important issues in play here is Boeing’s (and actual airlines’) role as a non-obligated party pursuing renewable fuel. In the U.S., almost every drop of biofuel reaches consumers via mandates that require those in control of motor fuel infrastructure (oil companies/refineries) to distribute a percentage of clean fuel (otherwise, petroleum companies just wouldn’t make it available, it’s a competitive product). By contrast, airlines are the only group independently, actively demanding a supply of renewable fuel. That’s a big, big signal to the marketplace to work on this alternative.

    Second, the hurdle is of course figuring out how to develop, monetize and commercialize the technology. The crop science sounds cool, but the next story is putting the other pieces of the puzzle together — how do you cultivate and process it at scale, how do you handle and store the biomass, who takes the risk to develop the technologies, etc. — and I guarantee that’s years, maybe even a decade away.

    Finally, I wouldn’t be so quick to throw first generation biofuels under the bus, particularly because of water use, at least in the U.S.. Only 13% of the U.S. corn crop is irrigated. The rest — 87%— grows with regular rainfall. Modern ethanol production also only uses 2.7 gallons of water for each gallon of biofuel. Each gallon of gasoline, by contrast, takes 97 gallons to produce. Simultaneously, farming and production processes keep getting more efficient while petroleum production keeps getting tougher.

    That said, the limitations of grain-based ethanol also confront halophyte-based jet fuel: crops that grow well in some places don’t grow so well in others. Feedstock diversity and distribution are going to be major problem to solve, and on a global scale. I’m excited to see Boeing and others drive innovation in the space.

  • TCFlood

    A quick Google suggests just US airline carriers use about 1 million bbl of fuel each day. How far inland is this operation likely to be feasible? At that inland penetration, how many linear miles of coast land would be required to make a dent in fuel needs? Or, more simply, what it the projected yield in gallons of fuel per acre per year? (Specify if this includes aquaculture fisheries and mangrove wetlands or not.)

  • Justin Barkewich

    WoW, this could be the next big farming industry. First the Desert held an advantage for the Solar Industry now biofuels…What else could the Desert hold as a secret….Just stay on the surface.:-)

  • Doug

    I believe algae based biofuel have some side products, feedstock for animals, medicine, etc. These may collectively add to the cost equation. Does this process have similar side benefits which can be utilized with oil extraction?

    • UKGary

      With algae, it is more a case of the fuel being a by product with the other products in many cases having far higher value in nutrients, food supplements, cosmetics etc. As such, the non-fuel products cover a substantial proportion of the system costs making algae based biofuels more cost effective than they would otherwise be.

  • Bob_Wallace

    While halophytes are salt tolerant I wonder what will happen as the salt levels rise in the soil as evaporation increases salinity….

    • Good question.

    • Ross

      Perhaps it uses hydroponics with the turnover of salt water preventing excessive levels of salt building up

      • Bob_Wallace

        I’ve done some hydroponic growing. One has to flush the medium (sand, perlite, whatever) periodically to wash out the accumulated salts from fertilizer. (It was back before I started growing organically.)

        Perhaps if they flushed with salt water they could keep accumulation under control.

      • Peter Gray

        Yes, simply letting enough seawater wash through rather than evaporating should do the trick. From the 2nd photo, it looks like they’re testing Salicornia, which can tolerate up to 7% salinity, which is double that of seawater. That’s a wide margin, so with a well-drained soil it ought to be easy to keep salt in the acceptable range. Surely the plant evolved to withstand higher-than-ocean concentrations because of the higher salinity in salt spray and due to evaporation…

        This does look like a great combination in all apparent respects. I work on a “wood residuals to biojet” project, with Boeing as one industry partner, so this source would be a competitor, but the market is huge. And for aviation, no replacement for liquid organic fuel (kerosene or something nearly identical) is on even a distant horizon. Biofuel is the _only_ plausible solution for this emissions problem.

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