It’s the ultimate sustainability news – wood-powered jet engines, but two new biomass jet fuels promise just that.
Sustainability news: The quest for a sustainable and long-term replacement for kerosene – otherwise known as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – continues to progress at a speed befitting jet travel, with recent sustainability news highlighting two ground-breaking developments in the field. How do these advances weigh up to other sustainability news stories that report novel, environmentally responsible or carbon neutral fuel solutions?
Enviva, the world’s largest biomass producer, has established several biomass factories across the south-eastern United States. These facilities create wood pellets from trees and forestry by-products, like tree tops, limbs, and scraps. Driven by the European Union’s commitment to transition away from fossil fuels, demand for biomass has surged in Europe, including for wind, solar, and wood pellets.
If a new focus on sustainable travel solutions in North America emerges, could it mean the same on the stateside of the Atlantic?
Last September, Enviva entered into a partnership with clean energy company Alder Fuels. This collaboration will provide Enviva with up to 750,000 metric tons of wood biomass for processing at their new Greencrude production facility, set to open in 2024 in the south-eastern US. Company data suggests this will result in approximately 37 million gallons of SAF, enough to power around 2,000 five-hour flights.
Wood pellets have been gaining traction as a viable alternative to traditional jet fuel. It may sound counter-intuitive, but Alaska Airlines successfully operated the first commercial jet powered by wood-based biomass in 2016. The process involves extracting sugar from wood pellets and adding yeast to the leftover product. This mixture then converts into isobutanol, a biofuel that is capable of propelling an airplane.
However, the wood pellet industry faces criticism from groups like the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, which argues that the environmental cost of harvesting wood for pellets and losing carbon-absorbing forests outweighs the benefits of SAFs. Critics also claim that burning biomass is as polluting as burning fossil fuels. That really isn’t great sustainability news.
In addition to biomass, electric planes represent another potential innovation that will enable more environmentally sensitive air travel. Currently, electric planes are limited to short distances and small passenger loads due to battery weight. For example, Heart Aerospace’s ES-30, a Swedish-made electric aircraft, has a range of 125 miles (or 250 miles with an electric-hybrid model). Air Canada has purchased 30 of these planes for regional flights. There is evidence, however, that, mile for mile, short haul flights of the kind that make up domestic airline business are the most damaging to the environment. Any progress in curbing short haul emissions while keeping vital connectivity in place has to be great news.
Electric aircraft technology is still in its infancy, with researchers like Gökçin Çinar at the University of Michigan working on improving hull and wing designs and reducing battery weight. Heavy batteries present a significant challenge – like all weight, including your baggage allowance – for developing lightweight aircraft systems.
Finally, corn and other plants can serve as another potential source of sustainable air fuel. Recently, Virgin Atlantic announced plans to buy 10 million gallons of fuel made from industrial corn, while United Airlines conducted the first commercial flight powered by a corn and plant-based SAF last year. Meanwhile, JetBlue and, yes, Virgin Atlantic (again) recently signed up for 25 million and 100 million gallons, respectively, of jet fuel from Air Company, who apparently make it from recaptured CO2. As with many emerging green technologies, the true environmental impact of these alternatives remains, so far, to be either seen or green.