Global Economics

Boeing Backs Algae to Fuel Airplanes


Airlines' largest outlay is for fuel, and algae may provide a promising biofuel to protect carriers from future oil-price hikes. Labs are making encouraging progress in developing algae cultures

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Glover, given the current low price of oil, why would airlines still even be interested in biofuels?

Glover: Indeed, the oil price has changed rapidly. But it has done that many times before and it will continue to do so. Even today, the highest operating expense for an airline is fuel. It remains a priority to find a way to mitigate that situation. That is why Boeing is trying to open up this avenue of alternative fuel. It can help that situation while having a better environmental performance at the same time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It seems that, after a few test flights last year, not much has happened.

Glover: Oh no, we are moving forward very rapidly! The first test flight was in February 2008. But more recently, in December 2008 and in January 2009, there were three test flights in quick succession with a higher blend of biofuel and better performance. We have already achieved quite a bit in terms of technical understanding and technical qualification.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, these test flights seemed first and foremost to be PR stunts aimed at burnishing the airline industry's green credentials.

Glover: We have worked hard and collected quite a bit of technical data. The industry is currently preparing a technical report that is coming out in the next couple of months. That will then go into the fuel specification approval process.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How high do oil prices have to be before biofuels become economically sensible?

Glover: Affordability is always critical -- and we are not where we need to be yet. But we are at the beginning of a learning curve. The price is expected to come down in fairly short order. That is not going to be an issue in the longterm.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where are we now and where do we need to go in terms of production price?

Glover: It depends very much on the types of plants used as well as the methods for processing and delivering that into finished fuel. I do not think there is a simple way to explain a particular price and a particular time. It is all situational.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you plan to ensure that the crops needed for biofuel production do not endanger food production or contribute to deforestation?

Glover: We cannot have commercialization of biofuels unless we make sure that it is done in a sustainable fashion. We aim to firmly establish a user group of top airlines from around the world that will lay out sustainability criteria and initiate aviation-specific discussions and research. We expect that to result in a code of practice to make clear what is acceptable and what is not.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the major points of concern is land use. Take, for example, jatropha, one possible source of biofuels. How many square kilometres of that plant would actually be necessary to fuel a flight over the Atlantic Ocean?

Glover: Good question, I never figured it out that way. We really do not expect that all of the world's flights will be fuelled by jatropha plants exclusively.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Than let us talk about algae. How big do these cultures need to be?

Glover: The optimists say, to supply the entire world with aviation fuel, you would perhaps need an area of the size of Belgium. We still need quite a bit of research and development work to really determine whether that is possible. So far, we are very pleasantly surprised by the innovation and the progress.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The biofuels will be blended with traditional kerosene-based jet fuel. What ratio is being planned?

Glover: The fuel specification that is being considered would allow up to a 50 percent mix. Whether one would actually be able to achieve this number with an initial commercial offering will depend very much on supply availability. But over time we actually expect it to increase to even beyond 50 percent.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you plan to make sure the different types of fuel are mixed properly and do not clog the plane's fuel lines?

Glover: The mix is done outside the plane before the fuel has entered into the fuel distribution system. At that point the blend is indistinguishable in performance characteristics from traditional jet fuel. No changes are required to the airplanes; no additional infrastructure is needed at the airports.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The airlines complain that costs will rise when the industry becomes part of the European Union emissions trading scheme in 2012. Will biofuels bring additional costs as well?

Glover: We are at the beginning stages of this and we expect the costs to come down over time. A lot of people are working on it and it looks like it is going to be successful. When we talk about emission trading schemes, we see that the systems take into account the fact that biofuels have a smaller carbon lifecycle. In a working scheme, the cost of biofuels would actually be lowered because one would not need an additional carbon certificate to go with it. The biofuels that can be available in the next few years will have a 60 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At what point in the future will biofuels be used in the airline industry on a commercial scale?

Glover: We will see the first commercial use in the next three to five years. More advanced fuel sources like algae might take eight to 10 years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will the airline industry eventually be able to lower CO2 emissions through the use of biofuels?

Glover: The industry is committed to carbon-neutral growth. When we are going to achieve that point is a matter of some debate. We expect it to happen sometime between 2025 and 2050.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what about full carbon neutrality?

Glover: Our aspiration is a carbon neutral industry. We see that as something that could happen beyond 2050.

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