Ground-breaking Australian research on the viability of aviation biofuels was released last Friday, at the culmination of almost three years of work by The University of Queensland, James Cook University, The Boeing Company, Virgin Australia, Mackay Sugar and IOR Energy.
The results of the unique study as part of the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative have been published in the international journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining and were presented at the Boeing-hosted Aero Environment Summit in Sydney.
Researchers at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, based at The University of Queensland, looked at the engineering and associated financial viability of biofuel production.
The work involved detailed techno-economic modelling of the processes to convert three feedstocks – sucrose from sugar cane; microalgae; and oily seeds from a tree called Pongamia – to produce a minimum selling price for aviation biofuel. The results showed that using current proven technologies, the biofuels would be economically competitive with crude oil at a price per barrel of $301 (sugarcane), $374 (Pongamia seeds) and $1,343 (microalgae).
While the research showed biofuel processes still require research and innovation to become economically viable for use in jets compared to existing fuels, the aim was to identify research priorities that will have the largest impact on lowering the price. These priorities include: delivering higher fermentation yields in the sucrose process; producing Pongamia seeds with a higher oil content; and developing cheaper and more effective microalgae harvesting technologies. Market developments would also help, such as good access to animal feed markets, since the three routes could all produce high-protein meal as a by-product.
The results showed that implementing these technological improvements could lower the price to $168 (sugarcane), $255 (Pongamia seeds) and $385 (algae). A major biofuel research effort is underway around the world that could also yield additional breakthroughs to further lower the costs.
Manager for techno-economic analysis at AIBN, Dr Klein-Marcuschamer said: “The research contributes testable numbers and models to the debate – and provides guidance on where researchers may wish to concentrate efforts to make the biggest impacts on reducing the price of the biofuel.”
Virgin Australia Group Executive of People Culture and Sustainability, Geraldine Chin Moody, said: “This research is a major step forward in understanding the unique feedstock opportunities in Queensland and how they might be commercialised in the future. The commercialisation of biofuel is a key priority for Virgin Australia and we look forward to continuing to work together with our partners to enable a strong and viable biofuel industry in Queensland.”
Michael Edwards, general manager of Boeing Research & Technology-Australia said: “This Australian research is an important part of Boeing’s global commitment to supporting research into sustainable aviation biofuels. We’ve proven that aircraft can fly on biofuels. The next step is establishing the commercial and sustainable biofuels industries needed to take biofuels flights from demonstration to reality.”
Queensland Minister for Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts Ian Walker praised the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative for its pioneering work. “The complex process involved in making a high-standard commercially viable fuel for a jet engine is a significant challenge,” Mr Walker said.
“The knowledge our scientists have gained will help hone future research efforts and helps us understand what is required to develop a future advanced biofuels industry in Queensland.”
The World Economic Forum found that air transport consumed 10 per cent of global transportation energy in 2010 and this use is projected to increase to 13 per cent by 2030. Unlike ground transport, where electric or hydrogen cars may provide an alternative, aviation depends on liquid fuels with high energy content. The aviation industry therefore has a strong desire for fuels that have the required properties, and are cost effective and sustainable.
Success in making biofuels viable would allow the Australian agricultural industries to diversify their product portfolios, with the potential for new manufacturing plants in rural areas such as North Queensland.