Boeing is leading local and global collaboration for the complex challenges our world faces now, and looking to the future. We support industry-wide approaches to align on ways to improve the environment. And whether it’s through the development of sustainable aviation biofuel or by working with communities globally on important environmental issues, we’re making a difference.
From working to improve the environmental performance of our products and services to working together for the benefit of our homes and communities, Boeing is building a better planet. — Boeing website
Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Japanese aviation industry stakeholders have charted a course to develop sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, when millions of people are expected to visit Japan.
The burning of fossil fuels over the past 90 years has released gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over that time.
Previous to the large-scale commercial extraction of petroleum beginning around 1920, the carbon embedded within coal and oil was permanently stored underground and had stayed there since the time of the dinosaurs.
It wasn’t going anywhere near the surface of our planet or into our atmosphere anytime in the next billion years — until mankind started bringing it up to the surface and burning it
The burning of fossil fuels extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth is a huge source of new CO2 introduced into our present-day atmosphere. — John Brian Shannon, Biofuel Central
Plant-based biofuels on the other hand, utilize plant matter that grows in our 21st-century — plants which absorb CO2 out of our modern-day atmosphere every day of the year
Jatropha trees, for instance, live 40 years. Only the plentiful fruits (several tonnes per hectare) are harvested each year for processing into biofuels while the rest of the tree continues to draw CO2 out of the air every day of the year. Because that’s what trees do.
After breathing in CO2 and exhaling oxygen for 40 years, at the end of that tree’s life almost exactly the amount of CO2 it captured during its lifetime returns to the environment, making the Jatropha’s carbon footprint, zero. (Exactly what it captured, it released, over its 40 year lifetime)
Then, new Jatropha trees are grown and a new carbon-neutral process begins.
Not so for fossil fuels. Carbon-heavy coal and oil are a huge source of new carbon that we bring up from deep underground which, as we burn it, continuously adds new CO2 to our atmosphere
Therefore ALL fossil fuel burning adds to the overall CO2 load of our atmosphere – while plant based biofuels are CO2-neutral, as they merely recycle the same carbon dioxide, many times over.
Where am I going with this?
We should blend our fossil fuels with CO2-neutral biofuels (50/50) to taper our dinosaur era, petroleum based, CO2-additions to the atmosphere.
Biofuels now come in three generations
1st generation biofuels were the first on the market, but required massive subsidies to be economically viable.
2nd generation biofuels were next-up and as the technical problems are now solved, new 2nd generation biofuels are surging ahead and show dramatic CO2 reductions.
3rd generation biofuels are in the pilot programme stage at this point, but early indications are that negative CO2 emissions may be possible — as megatonnes of waste carbon dioxide from nearby factories are used in algae biofuels production and the profitability of this new generation of biofuels (even without subsidies) seems likely.
The three generations of biofuels
Corn, palm tree, and sugar-cane are examples of 1st generation biofuel crops. They are poor choices for biofuel production as they have their own environmental negatives attached to them and they require massive subsidies to compete in the marketplace.
1st generation biofuel crops require billions of gallons of precious water, plenty of fertilizer, pesticides and land management.
And it goes without saying of course, that replacing food crops with biofuel crops is a very bad idea.
Fortunately, 2nd generation biofuel plants grow in conditions and areas which are inhospitable for food crops.
Some examples of 2nd generation biofuel plants which grow in semi-arid regions are; Jatropha, Millettia and Camelina and the cultivation of these provide plenty of jobs for developing nation labourers.
Biofuels that are produced with algae or enzymes are known as 3rd generation biofuels and are the most efficient way of producing biofuels, using only water, plant matter, relatively small amounts of algae and microscopic enzymes to do the work.
And talk about good karma, algae thrive when CO2 is added to the conversion chamber (called a ‘biofuel reactor’ which is basically a 500,000 gallon soup pot) and helps to convert the ingredients into high quality gasoline.
In the new algae-to-gasoline plants, tonnes of CO2 from nearby industry are added to the ingredient list to help boost the speed of the process and to increase the final amount of gasoline produced.
Like any other green plant, algae ‘eats’ the CO2 and emits pure oxygen just like the trees in your neighborhood.
Each batch takes 5 days and at continuous production that means CO2-eating and oxygen production is happening every day of the year.
It’s better to continuously recycle a large amount of carbon-neutral plant-based CO2 (recycling it millions of times over) than to bring new carbon in the form of coal and oil to the Earth’s surface with it’s carbon-heavy load to burn it, thereby adding unfathomable gigatonnes of new CO2 to our 21st century atmosphere.
Yet another biofuel bonus
Lower CO2 emissions are a well-known bio-jet fuel benefit, regardless of which biofuel generation they hail from.
Boeing’s Sustainable Biofuels Research & Technology Program reported 80% lower CO2 emissions for camelina bio-jet fuel when compared to conventional jet fuel.
All 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation biofuels are low carbon fuels (at the combustion stage) but only 2nd generation biofuels are economically viable at this point in time. New formulation 3rd generation biofuels look to have even lower CO2 emissions than the 2nd generation biofuels already on the market.
Depending on the type of biofuel crop employed, lowered CO2 emissions (as compared to conventional petroleum-based jet fuels) in the range of 50-80% are proven
New algae bio-jet fuels are showing CO2 emission reductions of better than 90% when compared to petroleum-based jet fuel.
There is every hope that within 10 years that new algae bio-jet fuel will prove to be CO2-negative as the algae requires huge volumes of carbon dioxide gas to grow at best possible speed.
Airline operators and the U.S. military note that the new bio-jet fuels extend engine life, emit less soot and smoke, and are easier on fuel system components such as fuel pumps and injectors
Notes about sugarcane:
Sugarcane moves from its present 1st generation biofuel ranking to 2nd generation biofuel ranking if certain guidelines are followed.
Sugarcane is usually considered a 1st generation biofuel crop, but;
1) if farmers refrain from burning sugarcane fields after each harvest (twice yearly) and 2) if the rest of the plant (not just the ‘cane’ but also the roots and leaves) are converted to biofuels via a new type of cellulosic bioreactor, and 3) where sugarcane fields aren’t displacing food crops, sugarcane is an excellent choice for a high-yield 2nd generation biofuel.
New biofuel technologies are allowing commercially viable transportation fuel production from switchgrass, non-edible grains and fruits, from certain trees, and recently from the ‘stover’ or ‘dross’ of certain crops (stalks, roots, leaves, bark, nutshells, husks) and algae.
Algae is the new player on the block and once it is supercharged with common industrial waste gases (like CO2) it becomes an exceptionally pure and clean burning biofuel with no negative waste stream.
But some may feel that biofuels have little future due to dramatically falling oil prices and the improved fuel mileage of today’s cars
However, that’s not the case…
“China recently set aside an area the size of England to produce jatropha and other non-food plants for biodiesel.
India has up to 60 million hectares of non-arable land available to produce jatropha, and intends to replace 20 percent of diesel fuels with jatropha-based biodiesel.
In Brazil and Africa, there are significant programs underway dedicated to producing non-food crops jatropha and castor for biodiesel.” — Will Thurmond in his book, Biodiesel 2020
Three generations of biofuel are already on the market or are undergoing commercial testing as of 2014
1st-generation biofuels are made from processed food crops such as corn, sugar cane and sugar beets
2nd-generation biofuels are made from non-food crops such as camelina, jatropha, millettia and switchgrass, which can grow in semi-arid regions
3rd-generation biofuels are made from algae + enzymes, or organic waste materials such as cardboard, stover, other biomass, or from waste gases and waste liquids from industry.
3rd-generation biofuels show the most promise and are progressing well along their production trials timeline — while 1st-generation biofuels still have major environmental and minor economic obstacles to overcome.
Meanwhile, 2nd-generation biofuel production is booming in many developing countries and investors are making excellent returns.
The global biofuel industry is entering a rapid phase of development
Total global biofuel production is projected to reach 66.3 billion gallons per year (BGPY) by 2022, and bio-ethanol is expected to hit 51.1 BGPY compared to biodiesel’s 16.2 BGPY.
According to a recent report from Navigant Research, worldwide revenue from biofuels for road transportation will grow from $166.5 billion annually in 2014 to $337.8 billion by 2022.
“Over the last 10 years, growth in the biofuels sector has been driven by the increase in ethanol production capacity in the United States and Brazil, and in biodiesel in Europe. Today, the industry is on the verge of entering a new phase of development focused on advanced and drop-in biofuels.” — Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research
“Given the scale of development to date and the crystallization of interests… widespread biofuels commercialization is no longer a question of if, but when.” — Biofuels Markets and Technologies report by Pike Research
A note about sugarcane
The following is true whether sugarcane is being harvested to produce table sugar or is being harvested to produce bio-ethanol
When sugarcane is harvested (every 5 1/2 months) the leaves, roots, etc. (also known as the ‘stover’ or ‘dross’ by farmers) is left on the ground and burned.
Millions of hectares of sugarcane fields go up in smoke, twice per year.
The people who can afford to leave the area during the twice-yearly burning are certain to leave as the unpleasant black smoke pervades those regions for up to two weeks, at two different times of the calendar year. Each year, a total of one month’s growing season is lost as the fields are burned.
This common practice releases millions of tonnes of CO2 and other gases (some toxic) into the atmosphere, causing a net loss for Earth’s atmosphere.
But even as burning millions of hectares of sugarcane fields measurably worsens the air quality of the Earth — hundreds of miles away from the twice-yearly burning in cities likeSão Paulo, Brazil for example (population 11.3 million) the urban air quality is dramatically improved year-round as a result of using bio-ethanol in the city’s millions of cars.
New technology to the rescue
Some foresighted bio-ethanol producers in Brazil are harvesting the sugarcane stover and processing it into biodiesel or bio-ethanol (depending on the enzyme used) in cellulosic biofuel reactors specially made for conversion of plant stover.
Total biofuel yields from stover are slightly lower than normal sugarcane biofuel production. But many farmers find stover biofuel produces fuel for farm use and they burn it to produce both heat and electricity to power the biofuel factory (during the twice-yearly biofuel or table sugar production run) and nearby homes (all year).
The Brazilian government is assisting farmers and thereby helping the Earth’s atmosphere by providing seed money and a mild subsidy to sugarcane farmers (regardless if the sugarcane is ultimately grown to produce table sugar or biofuel) to allow them to economically harvest and process millions of tons of stover, instead of burning it in the fields.
Properly targeted policies now, can have maximum impact on the promising economic and environmental future of biofuel.