Friday, 23 December 2011

New aviation biofuels - a major breakthrough?

Back in October, there was a wave of publicity hailing a major breakthrough in development of alternative jet fuel. Virgin Atlantic announced that it was working in partnership with two biofuel firms, Lanzatech and Swedish Biofuels, pioneering a process to produce jet fuel from waste gas emissions from steel plants. Carbon monoxide (CO) from steel plants, usually flared off as carbon dioxide, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, are being compressed and converted into fuel. A pilot project is underway in New Zealand, a demonstration plant has been commissioned in Shanghai, commercial operations are scheduled to commence by 2014, with the fuel initially used for flights from Shanghai and Delhi to London. Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin Atlantic, stated that the technology could be applied to 65 per cent of the world’s steel mills, and could also be applied to aluminum and cement plants.

This project promises to capture greenhouse gases from industry, and that would be a positive move, a step change in green technology. So far, there has been a lot of talk about this, but little action, and new power plants and factories, including metal plants, are being built without this technology. But another aspect of the project, the production of biofuel from waste gas seemed not just a truly miraculous breakthrough, but too good to be true. So I tried to find out about the firms involved and the actual process used to make the fuel. It appears that my hunch might be correct, that, although the biofuel might incorporate these waste gases, an input of biomass, living material, is also required.

Virgin Atlantic’s announcement on the People and Planet section of the firm’s website states that: ‘The process involves waste gases from industrial steel production being captured, fermented and chemically converted’. There is a video showing a schematic of the fuel production process.  

Blink and you’ll miss it, but, at the beginning, along with the waste gases, a biomass or MSW (municipal solid waste) input is shown. This indicates that, in addition to the waste gases, biomass is required to make the fuel. Virgin’s repeated description of the new fuel as biofuel (my italics) certainly implies that living material is involved in its production. If a biofuel does not contain biomass, then it is not a biofuel.

If biomass is being used, the new biofuel does still demonstrate progress, in the form of non-food biofuels. Most current biofuel crops, most notably corn and palm, displace food crops, contribute to rising food prices and world hunger. But with any biomass input, I would be sceptical about the airline’s claims that: ‘This next generation technology overcomes the complex land use issues associated with some established biofuels.’ The new project sounds like a major step forward from Virgin’s first biofuel test flight in 2008, which was partially powered by oil from coconuts, and babassu which is used as cooking oil. But, the use of any type of biomass to make fuel, even a non-edible feedstock, still has a land use impact. Even if the biomass input is MSW instead of a crop, the description of these inputs as ‘waste’ can be a lazy catch-all for kinds of materials, such as wood, food and garden waste, which could be diverted from the waste stream and used for another purpose other than burning as fuel, recycled, re-used or composted.

Sir Richard Branson promoted the new fuel initiative with his usual ambition and optimism, saying ‘I think this is the most important announcement that I've made in my lifetime’. In the video, he says the airline and its project partners are turning CO into jet fuel, there is no mention of any other input to produce the fuel. He said that the project will mean the airline can not just meet, but exceed, its pledge of a 30 per cent carbon reduction per passenger kilometre by 2020. Achieving this will depend on dramatically scaling up the demonstration project, and with growing evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from some biofuels are worse than fossil fuels, for example a 2010 study by nine European environmental groups, it is vital that the entire production process for new biofuels is subject to scrutiny. Virgin says that the fuel promises a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional kerosene, based on a lifecycle analysis, so I suggest making that research available. The announcement, and Branson’s blog, invite you to find out more on a website called Change is in the Air, but the links don’t work.
If the reporting of this new biofuel fuel project has been sloppy and inaccurate, if there is a biomass input to the new fuel, it is spreading scientific illiteracy. The distinction between a biofuel production process which involves waste gases, and a biofuel which is made from waste gases is an important one. Implementation of new technologies must be based on reality, not partial information which suggests that the quest for sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels is more advanced than it actually is. This leads to falsely reassuring notions that seemingly intractable problems have been resolved, so we can continue with industry as usual, including uncontrolled aviation expansion, and everything will be OK. I do see value in Virgin’s positive attitude. Nothing major is ever achieved without enthusiasm, a vision for a better future, the willingness to take risks, over-reaching yourself. But optimism needs to be balanced with hard-headed critical analysis. We have to face up to the barriers which remain, to put the problems out there for open debate, in as much detail as the achievements and the potential.

In the US, Lanzatech, one of Virgin’s partners in the project, has been granted $3 million from the FAA for another biofuel project, which was announced at the beginning of December. Green Car Congress outlines the fuel production process in some detail, and it is clear that there is a biomass input. It explains that, in addition to gases emitted by industry, ‘synthesis gas derived from lignin, a byproduct of cellulosic ethanol’ will be utilised to create the new fuel.

Lignin is part of the cell walls of plants. It is inedible and the supply is potentially abundant. It is easy to source lignin, but will it be possible to scale this project up, to source sufficient quantities of lignin which is a byproduct of cellulosic ethanol production? This depends on a dramatic breakthrough in cellulosic biofuels, and the indications are that this is not on the horizon. Maybe there are some wildly successful cellulosic projects I don’t know about, which could supply the lignin, but I doubt it. So far, scale production of cellulosic biofuel, from the non-food components of crops, such as husks, stalks, straw and corn stover, has proved disastrous in the US, as shown in this article in Wall Street JournalThe Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle. Congress mandated the purchase of 250 million gallons in 2011, from sources such as woodchips, stalks and switchgrass. Only 6.6 million gallons were actually produced. The mandate was for more than 37 times the volume of cellulosic fuel which was actually produced.

The ‘half dozen or so companies’ which received subsidies to produce cellulosic fuel have failed. One firm, Cello, declared bankruptcy in 2010. Grants were given to Cello in spite of the fact that it had not built a plant, or even proved that it had the technology to produce cellulosic biofuel. In 2009, a civil fraud case ruled that Cello had lied about how much cellulosic fuel it could produce. Some of the fuel Cello showed to investors was derived not from plants, but from petroleum. WSJ summed it up as: ‘Congress subsidized a product that didn't exist, mandated its purchase though it still didn't exist… and is now doubling down on the subsidies in the hope that someday it might exist.’

Yet, the US government continues to bankroll cellulosic biofuel projects. Government funding for research and projects to develop and prove the technology would be the sensible way forward, but, again, the grants assume that the technology will work and firms are contracted to supply considerable amounts of fuel. In September the federal government loaned Abengoa Bioenergy $134 million to build a cellulosic plant in Kansas, forecasting is that this will produce about 23 million barrels a year. POET, which advertises itself as the ‘world's largest ethanol producer’, was awarded a $105 million loan guarantee for cellulosic fuel by the Department of Energy.

Only two days ago, Gevo, a firm which received millions of dollars from the US government to develop fuels made from cellulosic materials such as grass and wood chips, announced that producing fuel from these sources is too expensive. So, Gevo will be using corn instead, and will retrofit its plants to make butanol instead of ethanol. Along with supplying butanol for the chemicals industry, Gevo has been contracted to produce 11,000 gallons of jet fuel for the U.S. Air Force for test flights.

Yet Gevo is one of the beneficiaries of the recent FAA grants for aviation biofuel, Gevo is to supply the biofuel for a Honeywell OUP project, and stated that the biofuel ‘can be produced from a variety of starch and sugar feedstocks, including corn’. Funding has been awarded to a project which merely holds out the possibility of inedible feedstock, with UOP stating that: ‘In the future, inedible sources, such as corn stover, bagasse and wood residues, could also be used as feedstocks.’ But, in the meantime, more US taxpayers’ money is has been handed over for aviation biofuels which compete with food supplies. Funding should not be used to contract supply from unproven technology. Funds should be dedicated to research and demonstration projects to prove, and improve, the technology for new biofuels.


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