In 2007 by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), set an industry-wide goal of carbon neutral growth by 2020. Meeting this goal will require that carbon emissions remain steady as global air travel increases.
Recent technological improvements in aircraft have increased fuel efficiency significantly, yet investment in additional technologies, including better air traffic management and biofuels, are needed to reach the IATA goal.
Supporting this goal in the Northwest US, Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) was launched in 2010 to research sources for sustainable aircraft biofuels.
SAFN’s vision is that by 2020 or soon thereafter, “all or most flights from major airports in the region will be using at least a blend of bio-based fuel that is sustainably developed,” said Ross Macfarlane, senior advisor with the nonprofit organization Climate Solutions that is helping manage SAFN efforts.
Pacific Northwest regional efforts receive a sizable boost
In September, the Agriculture Department announced the awarding of more than $136 million in research and development grants to public- and private-sector partners in 22 states, in part to support development of aviation biofuels. Eighty million dollars of this was awarded to consortiums led by Washington state’s two largest universities.
The University of Washington will lead a consortium of universities and businesses in a $40 million project to research converting poplar trees that are grown on plantations to aviation, diesel and gasoline fuels, while Washington State University will lead another $40 million project to research the potential for using residual wood after logging and forest thinning for aviation fuel.
“This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
These federal grants may be only the beginning, as a partnership announced by President Obama in August promises to invest up to $510 million over three years to develop biofuels for both commercial and military transportation.
Entrepreneurs on the move
Entrepreneurs in Washington and neighboring states are already moving quickly to leverage new research and seize the coming market opportunities.
In Seattle, AltAir Fuels is developing a biofuel refinery to produce 100 million gallons of jet fuel per year, potentially supplying as much as 10 percent of the fuel consumed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“The aviation industry has incredibly thin and challenging profit margins, and one of the biggest variables is the 100 percent dependence on petroleum fuels,” said Macfarlane. “Their challenge is managing the price volatility and supply volatility that is presented in that market. I think the question for most of the aviation stakeholders isn’t whether they are going to invest in alternatives, but what those alternatives are going to be and how they can quickly get there.”