Leading the green revolution
From biofuels to efficient aircraft design to aircraft recycling – the global aviation industry is trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Emma Kelly reports on the industry’s green initiatives.
Last year, the world’s airlines carried over 2.4 billion passengers as travel demand rebounded from the global recession. Those flights generated about 649 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – out of more than 30 billion tonnes produced in total by humans, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).
This year, passenger traffic is expected to be in the region of 2.7 billion, but the aviation industry is working hard to ensure that the emissions they produce do not increase every year in line with traffic growth.
The global industry produces around 2 percent of all human-induced CO2 emissions, with aviation responsible for 12 percent of emissions from all transport sources – compared with about 74 percent from road transport, ATAG says. The Geneva, Switzerland-based organisation is a not-for-profit group representing the air transport industry, with the goal of promoting its sustainable growth.
The aviation industry has done more than many others to improve its environmental record, setting itself some high targets: to improve fleet fuel-efficiency by 1.5 percent per annum between now and 2020; capping net carbon emissions from aviation through carbon-neutral growth from 2020; and halving net aviation carbon emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.
Investing in the latest efficient aircraft will help achieve these targets, but isn’t anywhere near enough. Jet aircraft in service today are 70 percent more fuel-efficient per seat-kilometre than the first jets in the 1960s, with the Airbus A380, Boeing 787 and Bombardier CSeries, for example, using less than 3l of jet fuel per 100 passenger-kilometres, says ATAG. But in order for the aviation industry to reach its annual 1.5 percent annual fleet-efficiency improvement target, ATAG points out that the world’s airlines will have to purchase 12,000 new aircraft at a cost of about US$1.3 trillion.
Low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuels, particularly biofuels, provide the industry with one of the biggest opportunities to reach its targets. “From a standing start just a few years ago, the aviation industry has embraced the concept of biofuels with enthusiasm and has already completed much of the technical work needed to start commercial flights,” ATAG says.
Biofuels offer huge potential, with ATAG noting that if commercial aviation received 6 percent of its fuel supply from biofuel by 2020, this would reduce the industry’s overall carbon footprint by 5 percent.
Since the first biofuel test flight, conducted by Virgin Atlantic in February 2008, when the carrier tested a first-generation feedstock on a Boeing 747-400 flying between London and Amsterdam, the industry has indeed embraced the alternative fuels. Air New Zealand launched tests of sustainable, second-generation biofuel in December 2008, using a 50:50 blend of Jet A1 fuel and jatropha to power one engine on a 747-400 flying out of Auckland Airport. More test-flights followed, including some by Continental Airlines, KLM, Japan Airlines and Brazil’s TAM Airlines.
In June, KLM operated a scheduled passenger biofuel flight between Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle. The following month, Lufthansa launched a six-month programme flying an Airbus A321 four-times daily on the Frankfurt-Hamburg route using a 25 percent blend of jatropha, camelina and animal fat biofuel in the first long-term trial of the fuel.
Meanwhile, Mexican carrier Interjet has conducted a biofuel flight on an A320 using a jatropha-based blend; Finnair in July flew an A319 between Amsterdam and Helsinki using a vegetable oil-based fuel; Boeing flew its new 747-8 Freighter across the Atlantic to the Paris Air Show in June, using a 15:85 blend of camelina-based biofuel and Jet A; and Honeywell conducted the first business-jet biofuel flight, when it flew a Gulfstream G450 to the Paris show using a blend of camelina-based Green Jet Fuel, developed by Honeywell company UOP, and petroleum based jet fuel. The Honeywell flight alone saved 5.5 tonnes of net CO2 emissions.
More flights are set to follow, with UK leisure airline Thompson Airways planning a Birmingham-Palma flight using a 50:50 blend of cooking oil and kerosene, and KLM planning regular scheduled flights between Amsterdam and Paris using a biofuel blend. The first biofuel flight of a turboprop aircraft – using camelina seed oil on a Porter Airlines Bombardier Q400 – is planned in 2012, in a project supported by the Canadian Government.
Rigorous testing has shown that biofuels can deliver equal and even better performance than the current fuel, but the issue is now to ensure a steady, reliable, cost-effective and sustainable supply, ATAG says. The fledgling aviation biofuels industry needs capital from the investment community and incentives from governments in order for it to get off the ground and make it economically viable, says ATAG.
According to the industry group, there are “six easy steps” to growing a viable aviation biofuels industry. These are: to foster research into new feedstock sources and refining processes; to de-risk public and private investments in aviation biofuels; to provide incentives for airlines to use biofuels from an early stage; to encourage stakeholders to commit to robust international sustainability criteria; to understand local green growth opportunities; and to establish coalitions encompassing all parts of the supply chain.
Collaborative efforts are ongoing worldwide to develop a global aviation biofuels industry, with many countries seeing the benefit of developing their own, local industries.
Australia’s science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), for example, concluded recently that establishing an economically and environmentally beneficial bio-derived aviation fuels industry in Australia and New Zealand is viable.
The CSIRO predicts that over the next 20 years a sustainable aviation fuels industry in Australia and New Zealand could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent, generate more than 12,000 jobs and reduce Australia’s reliance on aviation fuel imports by A$2 billion (US$1.97 billion) per annum.
The agency says there is sufficient existing sustainable biomass in Australia/NZ to support a local industry to supply 46 percent of total aviation fuel needs of Australia and New Zealand by 2020 and 100 percent by 2050. CSIRO outlines a roadmap through to 2020, including the establishment of the first commercial-scale, bio-derived jet fuel refining facility in 2015.
Australian airlines are active in biofuel research and development. Virgin Australia, for example, in July partnered Renewable Oil, Dynamotive Energy Systems, Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre and GE to develop a sustainable aviation biofuel using fast pyrolysis technology to process mallees – a eucalypt tree that can be grown sustainably in many parts of Australia. The partners are finalising plans for a demonstration unit to be operational next year and a commercial-scale plant as early as 2014.
Virgin Australia is also involved in an aviation biofuel research consortium headed by the University of Queensland and including Boeing and US energy company Amyris.
Australia’s largest carrier, Qantas, has teamed with Solazyme to develop a business case for the introduction of the US company’s algal-derived sustainable fuel technology in Australia, and with Solena Group on waste-based sustainable fuel.
In Brazil, the Brazilian Alliance for Aviation Biofuels (ABRABA) was formed last year in order to promote public and private initiatives to develop sustainable aviation biofuels. ABRABA includes aviation, fuel technology and agricultural companies and organisations, including aircraft manufacturer Embraer and airlines TAM, Azul and GOL, with the aim of integrating the country’s efforts to develop a local aviation biofuels industry.
Separately, in July, Boeing announced that it would team with Embraer and the Inter-American Development Bank to jointly fund a sustainability study into producing renewable jet fuel sourced from Brazilian sugarcane.
Europe’s Airbus, meanwhile, is involved in a Brazilian consortium with US bioenergy company SG Biofuels, Air BP, local biofuel company Jetbio and TAM, aimed at developing 75,000 acres of jatropha plantations in the central west region of Brazil for use in biokerosene for local carriers. Production capability is planned by the end of 2013, initially supplying Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro airports.
Last year in China, meanwhile, the National Energy Administration and the US Trade and Development Agency formed a team including Boeing, PetroChina, Honeywell’s Green Jet Fuel developer UOP and United Technologies, with the aim of establishing an aviation biofuels industry in the country. The project will include test flights using locally sourced jatropha oil-based biofuel in the second half of this year by Air China.
In addition, Boeing has partnered with the Chinese Academy of Science’s Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology on algae-based aviation biofuel, including developing algal growth, harvesting and processing technologies.
In Europe in June, the European Commission, Airbus, European airlines and biofuel producers launched a ‘Biofuel Flightpath’ plan, designed to speed up the commercialisation of aviation biofuels on that continent. The roadmap commits members to supporting and promoting the production, storage and distribution of sustainably produced drop-in aviation biofuels from European-sourced feedstock material, with the goal of reaching production and consumption of 2 million tonnes by 2020.
European biofuel activities include a project in Romania involving Airbus, TAROM, UOP and Camelina Company Espana to establish a processing and production capability using camelina, which is indigenous to Romania. Elsewhere in Europe, Dutch carrier KLM formed the SkyNRG consortium with the North Sea Group and Spring Associates to help develop and promote a sustainable biofuel market.
In the UK, British Airways (BA) is working with Solena to convert waste biomass into fuel using Solena’s plasma technology. The partners aim to convert 500,000 tonnes of waste per year into biofuels, with an eventual target of 1,170 barrels of aviation biofuel a day at a facility in East London. Full operations are planned for 2014.
BA is also involved in the Sea Green project which envisages a near-shore, ocean-based facility for the sustainable production of biomass for aviation biofuels using micro-algae as biofuel feedstock. The Sustainable Use of Renewable Fuels (SURF) consortium – comprising Airbus, BA, Rolls-Royce, Finnair, London Gatwick Airport, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the UK’s Cranfield University – was formed last year to drive stakeholder engagement. The first commercial products are expected to be available within three years.
Mexico, meanwhile, is a hive of biofuel activity, with the government leading an ambitious programme to develop a sustainable aviation biofuels industry in the country. Mexico is the fourth most-diverse country in the world, with over 5.8 million hectares of high-productive potential. According to ATAG, with the right funding structure in place, up to four aviation biofuel refineries could be in operation there by 2020, generating 800 million litres of sustainable aviation biofuel.
The oil-rich Middle East has also got involved, with projects including the Qatar Advanced Biofuel Platform consortium, involving Qatar Airways, Airbus, Qatar Petroleum, Rolls-Royce and Qatar University. The consortium aims to establish an algae biojet-fuel value chain, and the project is now moving from lab testing to development of a demonstrator production facility.
Boeing, meanwhile, is involved in the region’s Sustainable Bioenergy Research Centre, which includes Etihad Airways, UOP and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and is working on arid land and saltwater-tolerant biomass.
The US-based Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) is one of the best examples of collaborative efforts under way. CAAFI was founded in 2006 by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Air Transport Association of America, the Aerospace Industries Association and Airports Council International North America, with the aim of making commercially viable, environmentally friendly alternative fuels a reality. CAAFI started as a US initiative, but now has more than 300 stakeholder participants worldwide, ATAG says.
Environmental efforts are not just about biofuels. Airframe and engine manufacturers are working hard to improve the environmental credentials of their products. Airbus says, for example, that in 1985 the average aircraft fleet consumed 8 litres of fuel per passenger per 100km. Today it is less than 5 litres, with an anticipated drop to 3 litres within 20 years. The manufacturer’s single-aisle A320 provides the lowest fuel-burn per trip of any narrowbody with more than 100 seats, while the A380 – the world’s largest jetliner – has a relative fuel-consumption of 2.9 litres, Airbus says.
The Toulouse-based company is seeking to minimise the environmental impact of its products, starting with the design. This includes optimised propulsion systems, aerodynamic efficiency, the introduction of advanced materials and new processes to reduce weight, fuel-consumption and emissions. The A380, for example, was the first commercial aircraft to incorporate as much as 25 percent composites in its structure in a move that has saved up to 1.5 tonnes of weight.
Airbus is also working closely with engine manufacturers to reduce noise, through low-noise nacelle designs, acoustic treatments and noise reduction technologies. This includes the zero-splice inlet technology for engine nacelles to reduce fan noise.
Airbus is also applying ‘biomimicry’ to its designs – copying the best ideas from nature. The A350 XWB, for example, will feature probes to detect wind gusts ahead of the wings and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight, copying the way sea birds sense gust loads with their beaks and adjust the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift.
The manufacturer is also working on fuel-cell technology, which it sees as offering huge potential in reducing emissions, fuel consumption and noise. A fuel cell can transform the energy contained in hydrogen into electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen in a cold combustion.
Fuel cells have the greatest near-term potential for the replacement of auxiliary power unit (APU) use on the ground, resulting in emission-free ground operations and lower fuel consumption. In June, Airbus partnered with Parker Aerospace to develop fuel-cell technology as an alternative energy source for on-ground and in-flight electrical power supply.
A primary goal of the partnership is to develop a technology demonstrator, followed by a joint flight-test campaign and additional tests.
Aircraft manufacturers including Airbus are even applying green methods to aircraft painting. The “base coat, clear coat” livery painting method, for example, which requires only one layer of thick paint and a layer of varnish or clear coat for protection represents a dramatic reduction in paint volume when compared to the six coats that standard methods can use, the company says.
Manufacturers are also working to address aircraft end-of-life issues in an environmentally responsible way. Airbus says some 6,400 aircraft – approximately 300 per annum – are due to retire from service by 2026. Airbus was involved in the EC-supported PAMELA project – Process for Advanced Management of End of Life Aircraft – which determined that as much as 85 percent of an aircraft’s components could be safely and effectively recycled, reused or recovered.
PAMELA has resulted in the establishment of a dedicated centre at Tarbes Airport in France where aircraft are decommissioned, dismantled and recycled in safe and environmentally responsible conditions. The facility is run by the Tarmac Aerospace joint venture, which includes Airbus, SITA France and Snecma.
Likewise, Boeing is following green principles in all its activities. The manufacturer has committed to investing more than 75 percent of its Commercial Airplanes research and development efforts into improving the environmental performance of its aircraft.
In its latest product, the new 737 MAX, Boeing is promising a 16 percent improvement in fuel-burn per seat, compared with current competitors, and 50 percent lower fuel-consumption per seat than the MD-80 – “a substantial step forward in environmental performance”.
Boeing also recently delivered its latest Next Generation 737s. featuring improved-performance engines. In July, China Southern Airlines took delivery of the first 737-800 featuring a new CFM56-7BE engine configuration, now standard on all new 737s.
The improved design, coupled with drag-reduction measures, results in lower fuel consumption and maintenance-cost savings, says the manufacturer. The new engine is part of the 737 performance improvement package that Boeing started testing last November, with the aim of reducing fuel consumption by 2 percent. Since the first Next Generation 737 was delivered in 1998, Boeing says continuous efforts have resulted in an accumulated 5 percent gain in fuel efficiency.
Performance improvements aren’t just limited to the 737, with a performance improvement package for the 777 widebody twinjet improving the aircraft’s aerodynamics, through a software change to enable a dropped aileron, a ram-air system improvement and improved wing-vortex generators. The changes are incorporated into newer 777 models, but 18 airlines have ordered the package for existing fleets. United Airlines is installing it on 52 of its 777s and expects to reduce fuel spending per aircraft by about US$200,000 annually.
Boeing also recently announced the latest stage of its ecoDemonstrator Programme, which is aimed at reducing fuel consumption, carbon emissions and noise. In June, Boeing announced that American Airlines will be the launch customer for the programme, which will involve one of its 737-800s being used to flight-test and accelerate the market readiness of emerging technologies.
Technologies that will be flown on the aircraft next year include adaptable trailing edge technology, which is being developed under the US FAA Continuous Lower Energy Emissions Noise (CLEEN) programme and will reduce noise and emissions during all phases of flight.
In addition, there is the variable-area fan nozzle, which reduces noise and enables advanced engine efficiency technologies. The flight-trajectory optimisation for in-flight planning, meanwhile, enables airlines to determine and fly more fuel-efficient routes and provides flight crews with the ability to reroute for weather and other constraints.
The programme will also include the demonstration of regenerative fuel cells for onboard power, which will efficiently store and generate power and adapt to aircraft electrical systems’ demand, potentially reducing weight, fuel burn and CO2 emissions.
According to Boeing ecoDemonstrator Programme Manager David Akiyama: “Our ecoDemonstrator flight-test programme allows us to accelerate promising technologies and move them onto airplane models and into new-aircraft design considerations across the industry.”