By Hank Hogan
It could be up, up, and away for biofuels when it comes to military aviation. But to realize that potential, challenges have to be overcome, chief among them economics. Aviation biofuels — or sustainable alternative jet fuels, as advocates call them — must be cost competitive with other fuels, a tough task given current low oil prices. Vendors also have to ramp up production, while satisfying stringent military specifications. That requires substantial and economically risky investments in production processes based on the new technology.
The possibility of sustainable fuels has been demonstrated. In December 2014, U.S. Navy jets running on a 50/50 biofuel/fossil fuel blend reached supersonic speeds flying on afterburners. Such test flight results and other proof that biofuels can support high performance has been a significant step toward future military aviation use.
The biofuel used in the supersonic test came from a biorefinery located in Silsbee, Texas, and operated by Gevo. A biofuels company, Gevo produced the proof-of-concept fuel using what is called an alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) pathway — a defined and specified process for converting one substance, in this case alcohol, into an aviation biofuel.
“These flights represent an accumulation of over 4 years of hard work, involving innovative testing with multiple players and years of research. Together, we have proven that ATJ fuel is a viable alternative for both military and commercial applications,” Gevo Chief Executive Officer Patrick Gruber stated at the time.
Alcohol-to-jet is just one of many ways to make a drop-in biofuel that is functionally indistinguishable from traditional petroleum products. Identical functionality is necessary because jet fuel, unlike gasoline, has to be the same in California, Brazil, Australia, Norway, and anywhere else in the world. This uniformity ensures that a jet can take off, fly across several continents, and be assured of finding suitable fuel at its destination for the return trip, whether landing at a civilian airport or a military base. Having one standard for fuel also simplifies logistics.
Production and Challenges
Synthetic jet fuels can come from an increasing number of sources, according to Steve Csonka, Executive Director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). An industry coalition, CAAFI works to expand the production and availability of sustainable jet fuel alternatives. One of the ways it does this is by helping new pathways become part of international biofuel production standards.
A few years ago there was one approved production process. Now there are four, with half a dozen more in the pipeline. Csonka predicts that there will be a new pathway approved every 6 months or so over the next few years. It should then be possible to create jet fuel from wood waste, waste fats, non-edible plants, and other biomass sources using one of various methods.
For each of these different pathways, there is a company or companies championing it. The reason for this level of activity and the diversity in this field has to do with the urgent need to cut the cost of the alternative fuels, along with general disagreement as to the best way to do so.
“What you have is a bunch of entrepreneurs who believe that they have the technology and the secret sauce to lower the cost of production in one of two ways: either by coming up with processing where the capital expense of the facility is low, or by attacking the other side, which is going after lower operating costs, or by some combination of both,” Csonka explains.
Good news for the biofuel industry is that military aviation can help prod the market along. In 2012, the U.S. Air Force alone spent $9 billion on jet fuel, a figure that represents about 10 percent of the national total for annual jet fuel consumption. But, as these statistics show, military aviation, while significant, is not the whole picture. When it comes to fuel, military aviation is heavily impacted by its civilian counterpart and the market it creates.
More good news includes the signing up of commercial carriers to purchase sustainable jet fuel and the launch of biorefineries. For instance, United Airlines has agreed to take 15 million gallons of alternative jet fuel over a 3-year period from a facility in Paramount, California. At that site, AltAir Fuels has retrofitted an existing petroleum refinery to make both jet and diesel fuel, using a process licensed from Honeywell UOP of Des Plaines, Illinois.
The technology allows the refiner to adjust the output to market conditions, says Veronica May, Vice President and General Manager of Honeywell UOP’s renewable energy and chemicals business. Typically, this means that between 15 and 33 percent of the total production is jet fuel. Any biofuel that is produced is expected to sell at the same price as comparable fossil fuel.
May points out, “Actual cost of production varies mainly on feedstock market price.” Additionally, a number of variables impact feedstock cost. One factor is the expense of gathering up the material, which can be quite high. That can be the case if widely scattered feedstock has to be collected and transported to a central processing facility.
Another feedstock cost element, somewhat surprisingly, is the very act of finding a use for what was formerly considered a valueless waste product. According to May, for example, Honeywell UOP developed and deployed technology to convert waste cooking oil from restaurants into jet fuel. That can create a market for the waste oil and give it value, which can lead to an increase in the up-front price of waste cooking oil and change the economics of fuel production.
In addition to feedstock costs, another key element is government incentives — one example is what is known as the blender’s tax credit. According to May, this has usually run about $1 a gallon. Beyond the size of any current incentive, however, is the question of whether such incentives will continue to be offered. Biofuel production projects, like other refineries, take 3 or more years to build. Investors, of course, want to know if incentives will be there when the project is finished and fuel is being produced.
The problem is that government policy guidance often does not extend far enough into the future. May says that was the case with guidelines published by the U.S. Environmental Protection agency in November 2015. These only ran until 2017, too short a timeframe for any new projects contemplating a launch in 2016.
The regulatory situation also is in flux. Many in the industry expect that California’s carbon fuel standards may be the requirements eventually adopted by other states, May says. If that is the case, then biofuels have an advantage. As she points out, “The carbon intensity for our renewable fuels are significantly lower than fossil fuels, both for our pyrolysis oil from biomass and in our nonedible fats, oils, and greases process.”
According to the California Air Resources Board, switching from a fossil fuel to a biofuel can cut carbon intensity by as much as 90 percent, if there is no land use or other indirect effect raising the carbon impact of the biofuel. Even in cases where crops must be grown, harvested, and processed, the carbon savings can top 40 percent. For some feedstocks though, the carbon reduction is negligible.
The other big economic consideration, of course, is the price of oil. While it reached well over $100 a barrel a few years ago, it now looks like it could drop as low as $25 a barrel this year. That makes certain processes — particularly those with higher feedstock costs — too expensive comparatively to be viable.
Finally, for the defense industry, another cost impact is posed by additional specifications. Most military jet fuel must meet either JP-5 or JP-8 specifications, which differ slightly in freeze point and more significantly in flash point.
Both JP-5 and JP-8 call for a freeze point of about –46 degrees Celsius (–51 degrees Fahrenheit) or below. Honeywell UOP’s technology leads to biofuels with a freeze point of –57 degrees C (–71 degrees F), meaning that the specification is easily met.
JP-5 is the safer of the two because it has a flash point of 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) versus the flash point of 38 degrees C (100 degrees F) for JP-8. Biofuels can meet the lower specification but not always the higher one without special treatment. In Honeywell UOP’s case, the flash point of fuels produced using its processes is 45 degrees C (113 degrees F). As May explains, hitting the higher flash point requires putting additives into the fuel, driving up its cost.
That, however, may not be too significant a barrier. JP-8 makes up the vast majority — by some reports 90 percent — of military aviation fuel. So biofuels can be blended in without requiring the use of additives.
As for commercial fuel, the flash point is the same as JP-5. In the United States, Jet A, with a freeze point of –40 degrees C (–40 degrees F), is used. Outside the U.S, Jet A-1 is standard, with a freeze point similar to that of military fuels. So, performance-wise, it seems that it should be possible to meet an industry stated goal of having biofuels account for between 5 and 15 percent of total aviation fuel consumption by 2020. Hitting that target, which would require a significant ramp up in production of biofuels, would make it easier for military aviation to adopt greener, more sustainable fuels.
Neville Hargreaves is Business Development Director of Velocys, which has its commercial center in Houston. The company designs, develops, and commercializes technology to produce synthetics from natural gas and renewable sources, such as waste biomass, via what is known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Velocys’s technology is the basis of the fuel production to be used in a Red Rock Biofuels plant proposed for Lakeview, Oregon.
While more plants are in various stages of planning, design, or actual construction, no biorefinery producing a large volume of jet fuel is up and running yet. Part of the reason is caution in committing to such investments, a particular concern when facilities take years to complete and cost at least tens of millions of dollars. Success may overcome that reluctance.
“To some extent, the first one is always the hardest. Establishing the whole pathway is important to people. Then once that’s done, it’s ‘Oh, yes, we’re going to do one just like the one over there’,” Hargreaves concludes.
It could well be that biofuel production will quickly ramp up. And depending on the outcome, looming rules regarding allowable carbon emissions could move the process along. That may be especially true if investors become convinced that airlines have to significantly cut the carbon intensity of their fuel. In that case, biofuels could be a solution.
Currently, though, hitting even a 5 percent biofuel target by 2020, which is only 4 years away, still seems somewhat unlikely, Hargreaves admits. But that does not mean it cannot happen. Regarding reaching this goal, he concludes, “It remains a challenge for everybody, the government, airlines, airports, all those involved in aviation to make sure that this gets done.”
(Photo’s courtesy of “Honeywell UOP” & “Velocys”)