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Growing jet fuel in desert in Emirates

Staff Writer | November 28, 2016
Thirty kilometres from the bustle of downtown Abu Dhabi, lies an undertaking that could one day change the environmental impact of air travel.
Advanced biofuels
Technology   Advanced biofuels are different from first generation
Set on a two-hectare farm down the road from the IRENA Headquarters building, a pilot project conducted by Masdar Institute’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) is bringing private sector firms together to answer "is it possible to create a sustainable jet-powering biofuel?"

“In today’s world, air travel is a necessity. As the aviation industry grows, so does its carbon footprint. Airlines, plane manufacturers, and fuel producers alike, are looking for ways to make air travel sustainable and renewable,” says Hendrik Johannes Visser, a microbiologist at Masdar Institute and a lead researcher in the SBRC’s jet-biofuel project.

While creating a biofuel powerful enough for a jet is tricky but possible, ensuring that it’s also sustainable and commercially viable is particularly challenging, IRENA reports.

“First generation biofuels — derived directly from crops like corn or soya bean — tend to be at the centre of the food versus fuel debate, and so for us, are not really sustainable,” explains Visser.

“Their high freezing point means they also aren’t good for airliners flying at over 30,000 feet. We’re working on creating a biofuel that can meet the aviation industry’s needs: a sustainable biofuel — an advanced biofuel.”

Advanced biofuels are different from first generation biofuels in that they can be derived from non-food crops — opening countless biofuel options.

“Advanced biofuels use lignocellulosic feedstocks like farm and forest residues, grasses, trees, and algae. They have high yields and grow on land poorly suited for food crops,” says Francisco Boshell, a renewable energy analyst at IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre.

IRENA sees substantial potential to expand both food and biofuel supplies globally, in a sustainable manner, by utilising pathways that do not compete with food production. A recent IRENA report analysed the promising future developments of advanced liquid biofuels, and forecasts its increased competiveness in the transport sector.

“Advanced biofuels can typically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 95% compared to fossil fuels,” says Boshell.

“While electrification is taking off in the road transport sector, biofuels continue to be the only viable alternative, at present, to mitigate carbon emissions for the aviation sector — an industry which represents a market of around 380 billion litres of jet fuel per year.

“However the commercialisation of new pathways with new organic sources is still a challenge in view of prolonged low oil prices and a lack of an appropriate price on carbon emissions. One of the ways to address these challenges are business models which benefit from multiple revenue streams, as energy plus agriculture, as SBRC is testing in the UAE.”