Boeing ‘really excited’ about biofuels

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The US plane-maker spoke to EURACTIV about plans to fly aircrafts on a 50% biofuels blend in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint. However, it says that it does not expect much from the inclusion of aviation in the EU’s CO2-trading scheme.

Billy Glover is managing director for environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Click here to read a shortened version of this interview.

Air traffic is attracting increasing attention from politicians due to concerns about global warming. How can aircraft manufacturers help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? How is the reduction-potential broken down between engine improvement and other areas?

Improvement of the engines, more efficient structures and advanced aerodynamics and systems each contribute roughly a third to efficiency gains.

Together with the engine manufacturers, we work very aggressively on new designs and new technology to stretch targets on fuel efficiency. Aerodynamics are fundamental to a plane. This is how efficiently you ‘lift’ the aircraft. The more robust the aerodynamics, the better you are on fuel efficiency, CO2 efficiency and noise. Advanced structures and materials determine how much lighter you can make the plane. The fuselage of our newest 787 Dreamliner plane, for instance, is made primarily of carbon-fiber composite materials. This material is much lighter and stronger, reducing the overall weight. Weight reduction is most important for environmental performance. 

One of the big trends is advanced electric systems. Airplanes in the past have relied heavily on hydraulic and pneumatic technology. Electric technology lets you be more precise in your control. You can control the air conditioning more precisely, for instance, by extracting power from the engines to run the air conditioning. So if we can run the air conditioning with an electric resource instead of taking the air off the engine, it means that we’re more efficient.

A big issue in Europe is air-traffic management. A study by Eurocontrol says that we could achieve up to 12% reduction in CO2 emissions with the implementation of an efficient ATM system. That doesn’t require any new aircraft, or any new technology, it is a policy issue.

Boeing is partnering with airports, airlines and civil aviation authorities at various international airports to improve airport operational efficiencies, for example by implementing Continuous Descent Arrival procedures. These approach paths reduce the exposure to aircraft noise and reduce fuel consumption and associated emissions. Almost every airport is unique in its geography, the amount of traffic at different times of the day – and you have different organisations involved from airport to airport, so it will take some time to implement this everywhere.

Fuels, airplanes, air-traffic management and ground operations are improving. All are important. Air-traffic management improvements represent the greatest short-term opportunities for significant reductions in CO2 emissions.

Talking about fuels – Are you also looking at ways to diversify the fuel mix in the aviation sector? I hear biofuels are now being considered for use in airplanes as well as in cars…

This is one of the new developments that we’re really excited about. Just a few weeks ago – on 24 April – we announced that we are working on a biofuel-flight demonstration, together with Virgin Atlantic and General Electric, scheduled for 2008. We are in the testing phase right now, sorting through dozens of samples of different types of fuels to select the one that we’ll use for the biofuel demonstration.

Normally, due to the chemical composition these types of fuels freeze more easily than crude oil processed fuel. So we have to do some extra processing. We are looking at different blends of biofuels with more conventional sources of fuel. If you can run the plane on a 50% blend, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by maybe 20-25% on that day. So while we may not get the full benefit, we will achieve a partial benefit in terms of carbon reduction. We are aiming to achieve properties that look like, act like, and perform like today’s fuel, and therefore can be used in today’s planes.

What timeframe are you looking at to achieve the 50% blend? Will it be short term or long term?

The blend can be used as soon as it’s available, in all the airplanes that are already flying, without modification. No major changes of distribution networks, storage networks will be necessary. 

This does not mean that in ten years’ time you will be able to buy bio-fuel blend everywhere. It will take time for the processing capacity to rise, to have the right amount of plant stock and the processing capability.  But what we can foresee is that within 10 years, there will be certain airports with fuel tanks where this blend will be available. When you fly to that airport, that’s the fuel you get. When you fly to another airport, you might get a more conventional fuel. 

The 50% blend figure is our target. We’d like to go to 100%, but we don’t believe that is technically feasible at the moment. For the biofuels demonstration that we’ll do next year, we’ll actually test the 50% blend in the lab. If it doesn’t have the properties that we need, then we’ll try a 40% blend, and then we’ll try a 30% blend, but hopefully we’ll be close to 50% and get the performance we need.

How many airports do you expect will have the blend available ten years from now? Will they be in Europe mainly, or do you expect them to be in the US, or elsewhere?

I expect the blend to be available in different places at different points in time – depending on the entrepreneurs, the different types of feed stock. There will probably be different types of blends around the world, depending on the feed stock that is most available in the region and the required processes.

Would you expect a country like Brazil – which is a leader in bio-fuels – to provide a lot of it?

Yes. They’re working actively on this.

Has the US got specific targets on this?

There are no specific targets for jet fuel in the US. This is just in the feasibility stage. But there are fuel providers in the US working on this as there are in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region.

What about sustainability issues – the competition with food crops for example, which has already put pressure on corn prices in some countries?

We do have criteria to make sure we’re not competing with food users, to make sure that there are adequate yields so you’re not using up land that’s otherwise occupied. To make sure you’re not using up water resources and that you’re not displacing forests or indigenous plants.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) recently chaired a conference [in October 2006] which launched the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). It laid out what they called the ‘road map’ which looked out over 20-30 years to assess what would need to be done in R&D, regulatory framework to industrialise and commercialise alternative fuels. The road map has been an act of collaboration for the parties involved on a voluntary basis. 

We looked at the road map, and it actually contained a flight demonstration for bio-fuel, which was planned in five years. That inspired us to see if we could do better, and it resulted in setting the goal and getting partners lined up to actually do a flight demonstration next year. It may not be the only one – I hope it won’t be the only one – but it’s a start.

How will the inclusion of aviation in the EU carbon-trading systems (Emissions Trading Scheme – ETS) make an impact on Boeing’s business?

The ETS proposal would require airlines to have allocations and credits for their emissions.  Our aim – regardless of the details – is to provide efficient solutions. 

Efficient solutions can involve new products, if airlines ‘change out’ their fleet over an investment period to significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Or it can involve working to improve operations – ground operations or flight operations – or it can involve working with air traffic management. Eurocontrol, for instance, has set some targets. Boeing is actively involved in working on the Single European Sky.

Obviously the EU-ETS will encourage new technology, so clearly that must be good news for you. Do you expect any extra business or a direct impact on orders? 

We are already sold out until 2011, so we can’t produce any more. It’s a long-term market, orders are made far in advance…

So, are you planning to extend production capacity, then?

We’re very cautious, and carefully consider changes in capacity, because it’s a significant investment and it’s a long supply chain. And we’re just very cautious about ramping production up and down. It has a massive impact if you don’t get it right. 

Do you have particular concerns regarding the inclusion of aviation in the EU-ETS?

One of our concerns is to make sure we have a global solution. We can’t design for 25% of the market very effectively, because it splits our resources. Global policy solutions are preferable due to the global nature of aviation. We would like to see these issues worked on at an international level, and in adherence to principles and findings of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to the maximum extent possible.

Obviously, no market will require you to pollute more than in the neighbouring country, so why wouldn’t you adapt your whole fleet to the stricter EU standard?

Let me give you an example. London Heathrow has very strict noise rules called the ‘quota-count system’ – the QC system. In order to meet some of those rules, you have to make compromises in the design. So, it’s been a well-publicised fact during the case of the A380 that the design of the engine, and the nacelle and so on, had to be adjusted to meet London noise at a higher fuel burn. So, CO2 was sacrificed in order to meet noise-requirements for the community that lives around London. Is that a good trade for the climate? That’s the kind of question that drives us to say that global solutions are the better solutions. 

So in a nutshell, you don’t expect much impact from ETS inclusion on your business?

As an aircraft manufacturer and as a technology company, we’re always trying to be ahead, developing and introducing new technologies to create better environmental performance for commercial jetliners, regardless of policy discussions. If you’re in an industry such as ours, with lead times like ours, you think long ahead. 

The bio-fuels research we started wasn’t particularly triggered by a discussion about ETS. You have to continuously make improvements to be competitive. The regulatory framework should recognise that we are already working as fast as we can to make improvements.

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