One of the key components to reducing emissions in the aviation industry is introducing affordable and sustainable biofuels to replace high-polluting fossil fuels. In 2008, the first commercial flight to ever use a blend of biofuels paved the way for the future of eco-friendly aviation. Since then, an estimated 150,000 flights have flown using biofuels. While this may seem like a step in the right direction, biofuels still only account for 0.1% of the industry’s total fuel consumption.
The proliferation of biofuels in the industry will play a key role in whether they can fulfill the International Air Transport Association’s pledge to reduce emissions in half by 2050. A study by NASA found that switching to even 50% biofuel mixtures could reduce the aviation industry’s emissions by 50-70%. So, what are the benefits and challenges of replacing jet fuel with biofuel and can biofuels be a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels in aviation?
Biofuels are an alternative fuel source made from plant material or other renewable raw materials such as starch, cellulose, or vegetable oils like soybean, canola, or cooking oil waste. Biodiesels (a type of biofuel) are the industry’s most viable alternative to fossil fuels because of the carbon offsetting that occurs during cultivation of the biomass (plants used to make biofuel) and because they can be used in existing combustion jet engines.
Biofuels are considered carbon neutral because the biomass used in their production recycles carbon that was already fixed in the atmosphere, whereas fossil fuels release fixed carbon from the earth thus increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. While biofuels seem like a promising alternative fuel source, there is still apprehension within the industry to adopt them due to the high cost of biofuel in comparison to oil. However, as the biofuel industry grows and cheaper methods of processing are developed, biofuels will become cheaper and more easily accessible.
Different types of biofuels have varying levels of carbon offsetting capacity, therefore, whether a biofuel can be considered a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels will vary depending on the type of biomass used to produce it and how much fossil fuels were burned during the processing and/or transporting of the biofuel. First generation biofuels, like ethanol, are made from food crops such as corn or sugar. The challenge with these biofuels is that cultivation of food crops for biofuel competes with food production and requires a large amount of resources to cultivate, making it less sustainable. On the other hand, second-generation biofuels do not compete with food production as they use cellulosic material, like wood and inedible plant parts as biomass. However, because cellulosic material is harder to process, it requires pretreatment which increases its cost of production. Third-generation biofuels are made by processing the lipids produced by algae, however these also have a high production cost. Fourth generation biofuels are the most advanced type of biofuel. These are produced using waste from landfills, farm animals, agricultural land, and municipal waste sources. Biofuels made from waste will likely dominate the biofuel market in coming decades due to the abundance of cheap organic waste, however, it will likely be 10-15 years before planes can be fully powered by such biofuels.
While biofuels themselves will not solve the climate crisis, they will play a key role in our ability to reduce global emissions.
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