New research by Boeing Co. shows that so-called green diesel, a fuel blend made from oils and fats that is already used in trucks and other ground transportation, can be used to power aircraft too, the Chicago-based aviation giant said this week.
One official called the revelation a “major breakthrough” in the industry’s quest to wean itself off fossil fuels and reduce harmful emissions.
“Green diesel is one small step in total aviation fuel capacity, but it’s one giant leap forward in the commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuels,” said Julie Felgar, managing director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ environmental strategy and integration.
Unlike some other alternative fuels, green diesel is being produced on a relatively large scale and, with current government subsidies, is cost-competitive with traditional jet fuel, known as Jet A, Boeing said.
“To date, we have been working on a number of pathways, and we’ve even gotten approval for biofuels, but we haven’t been able to do the supply-demand quotient yet,” Felgar said.
By contrast, green diesel is already a proven fuel alternative that flies, economically, she said. There is already a supply, and the price is right.
“We started to cast our net wide, and we realized we really needed to take a good look at what was being used in ground transportation, because that would help us get the economics right,” she said.
Green diesel, made from such materials as recycled animal fat, used cooking oil and inedible corn oil, has half the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. And it would allow airlines, cargo carriers and the military, for example, to use the same alternative fuel blend in their trucks and their planes.
Boeing officials hope the fuel can get industry and regulatory approval this year for aircraft use. If approved, the fuel could be blended with traditional jet fuel up to 50 percent and without modifications to aircraft engines.
Chicago-based United Airlines called Boeing’s announcement Tuesday “exciting.”
“We look forward to seeing the technology further developed for green diesel to be utilized for aircraft,” Angela Foster-Rice, United’s managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability, said in a statement.
Commercial aviation and the U.S. military consume 20 billion gallons of jet fuel a year. The cost of jet fuel, now the biggest operating cost for airlines, has tripled since 2000, making it a major issue for carriers.
The aviation industry has proved in tests that it can fly airplanes safely and efficiently on fuels made from cornhusks or algae or many sources other than crude oil. But adoption of so-called biofuels to fly jets ultimately comes down to economics.
In the case of green diesel, also called renewable diesel, its wholesale cost is competitive with petroleum jet fuel at about $3 a gallon, including federal incentives of $1 to $3 per gallon. And green diesel plants around the world, including two in Louisiana, have the capacity to produce 800 million gallons – not nearly enough to meet the demand of the aviation industry but ahead of other alternative fuels.
Green diesel isn’t the only answer among alternative fuels, but it accelerates the evolution, Felgar said.
“A few years ago, people said this was a complete long shot,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it will be an easier road to travel.”
The topic of alternative fuels for aviation has been a hot one in the Midwest, in part because so many local companies and organizations are involved with the topic.
The world’s second-largest airline, United Airlines, and the world’s largest aircraft-maker, Boeing, are both based in Chicago and part of the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative, as is Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust and Honeywell UOP, a leader in aviation biofuel technologies headquartered in Des Plaines. Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont chairs the group’s advisory council. Solazyme Inc. has a Peoria, Ill., plant that produces oil from algae, and LanzaTech, of Roselle, Ill., has a process that converts waste gas, from steel mills for example, into fuel.
In June, the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative announced a number of steps toward developing aviation biofuels. For example, the Chicago Department of Aviation, which operates O’Hare International and Midway airports, and United Airlines pledged to identify ways to develop alternative fuels, focusing on converting waste streams in the Chicago area into jet fuel. And Honeywell UOP, United and Boeing will provide funding for Purdue University to research ways to convert corn stover – leaves and stalks left in fields after a harvest – into jet fuel.
United Airlines last year signed a three-year deal to buy 15 million gallons of biofuel from a commercial-scale plant near Los Angeles operated by AltAir Fuels. The biofuel is planned to be used on United flights departing from the carrier’s Los Angeles airport hub this year.