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Biofuels, Boeing and land take

3rd November, 2008

While some aircraft manufacturers and airlines see biofuels as a way of reducing their impact on the environment and therefore being allowed to grow unconstrained, Boeing at least understands some of the major issues and problems of biofuels.

See article below from Guardian, annotated with AEF comments and links.

Biofuel flying will take off in three years, says Boeing (Dan Milmo, transport correspondent, The Guardian, 27th Oct 2008)

Biofuel-powered aircraft could be carrying millions of passengers around the world within three years, according to Boeing.

Darrin Morgan, an environmental expert at the US jet manufacturer, said the group was expecting official approval of biofuel use in the near future.

“The certification will happen much sooner than anybody thought,” he said. “We are thinking that within three to five years we are going to see approval for commercial use of biofuels – and possibly sooner.”

Morgan added that aircraft will not require modification to operate on a blend of biofuel and kerosene. However, harvesting enough plant material to meet the industry’s needs is the biggest barrier to mass use of biofuels, according to Boeing. Fuelling the world’s 13,000 commercial planes with soya bean-based fuel, for example, would require setting aside the equivalent of the entire land mass of Europe for soya bean production.

Morgan of Boeing has understood the key land issue. Others have also worked out the land needed to produce biofuels. See calculations.

Boeing expects planes to operate on a 30% blend of biofuel. It also believes they could operate on a 100% blend, but says there would not be enough biofuel to supply an industry that consumes 85bn gallons of kerosene a year.

Airlines are staging biofuel trials, as well as Boeing and its close rival Airbus, with the support of engine manufacturers including Rolls-Royce.

A recent trial by Virgin Atlantic and Boeing was dismissed as a “PR stunt” by Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief executive. That drew a sharp response from Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, who warned that the airline industry would go “backwards” if Walsh’s attitude prevailed. BA has subsequently teamed up with Rolls-Royce to conduct an in-depth study of alternative fuels. Air France-KLM, the world’s largest airline by revenue, has also given its backing to biofuels.

Friends of the Earth said the aviation industry should limit flights first before turning to biofuels and warned that doubts over the ecological benefits of alternative fuels had not been answered. “There are real doubts over whether biofuels are sustainable and make a real contribution to cutting climate-change emissions,” said Tony Bosworth, a transport campaigner at FoE. “Second-generation biofuels are also, as yet, unproven.”

According to their backers, biofuels are good for the environment because their ingredients absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while they are grown, which balances out the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released when the fuel is burned. Studies show that the theoretical gains are not achieved. When ones takes into account the energy/CO2 costs of and DOPG growing, processing, transportation etc, to produce biofuels, CO2 released by producing and burning biofuel can be much more than CO2 taken up by the biofuel crop. Indeed, some biofuels may actually be worse in terms of net CO than burning fossil fuel. The main reason for the US’s interest in fossil fuels is ‘energy serurity’, not emissions.

Detractors argue that mass production of biofuel pushes up food prices by using land that would otherwise be dedicated to producing food crops and also causes increased deforestation.

Land needed for biofuel

Here are some rough calculations from T&E (Transport & Environment), a european umbrella group for NGOs.

Virgin Atlantic (43 aircraft in 2006) burns almost 2 million tonnes of fuel a yr – deducted from its CSR report. With that amount it is responsibe for approx. 1% of total aviation’s fuel use!)

If you rule out ethanol, the most conventional processes to produce biofuel are biodiesel on the basis of soy and rapeseed. With these crops you get yields of 20 and 55 GJ/ha respectively (CE Delft study, Dec 2006) which is some 0.5 to 1.2 tonnes of biofuel.

(T&E did not include palm oil – which has approx. 4 times better yield per ha but is very controversial in its impact on tropical biodiversity.) This would convert into 14,000 to 40,000 square kilometres of land needed to fuel Virgin Atlantic’s fleet.

The UK’s arable land is approx. 60,000 km2 so a quarter to two thirds of the UK’s arable land would be needed to fuel VA’s fleet on soy- or rapeseed based biofuels. (only 1% of total aviation’s fuel use)

It is certainly possible to significantly increase yield per hectare but currently soy and rapeseed (and palm oil) dominate the biodiesel market.