Partnership on Aviation Bio-Fuels a Key Step for Environment and Economy

This month U.S. consumers landed some exciting news as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiled plans to create a national center for excellence on jet biofuel research.  The recently announced effort will help to revolutionize the air transportation industry by tackling one of its largest challenges – rising fuel costs.

The center will be based at Washington State University and will bring together researchers from 16 academic institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, among others.  The research team will also benefit from the expertise of 26 federal government and airline industry partners including companies like Boeing, Delta Airlines and General Electric to name just a few.

By aiming to significantly advance the use of cost-competitive “drop in” aviation biofuel, the effort will support the FAA’s target of deploying one billion gallons of alternative jet fuel by 2018.

Perhaps, the most promising element of the center’s work is that it will approach its research from a regional perspective; taking into account biological materials, and the needs of different hubs, in varying regions across the country.  This strategic approach is important given that the top 40 U.S. airports use approximately 90 percent of America’s jet fuel.

In addition to decreasing carbon emissions, the center’s work is critical to the airline industry’s future growth as fuel costs – which account for approximately 35 percent of an airline’s operating costs – have risen 267 percent over the last 11 years.  This has caused airlines to increase prices for tickets and other services, which increases costs for the entire economy.

In fact, commercial aviation is a cornerstone of the economy, as it intersects almost every sector of the economy and drives more than 5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2010, for example airlines enplaned 720 million passengers and 18 million tons of cargo on more than 10 million flights.

It stands to reason then, that if successful the center could provide significant savings and market-based solution to help our national economy considering that jet fuel cost, on average, $128 per barrel in 2012.  For comparison, some experts predict the cost of biofuel could be as low as $50 per barrel once it is produced in large commercial quantities.

For its part, the U.S. airline industry has already begun embracing the use of biofuels to reduce costs and lower its carbon footprint. Just a few years ago, eight airlines in the Air Transport Association signed a letter of intent to negotiate the purchase of large quantities of fuel derived from biomass.  As part of that effort, Solena Fuels will utilize post-recycled urban and agricultural wastes to produce up to 16 million gallons of jet fuel per year by 2015 to support operations at Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose.  Meanwhile, in June United Airlines agreed to buy 15 million gallons of lower-carbon, renewable jet fuel from AltAir Fuels over the next three years.

Of course, it goes without saying that the increased use of biofuels in our nation’s airline industry will pay large dividends in decreasing our nation’s carbon emissions.  With the implementation of this center and major U.S. airlines already embracing biofuels the future looks bright for increased renewable fuel use in our aviation sector.

In sum, the Center of Excellence in Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment epitomizes how the federal government and private industry can partner to create new paradigms that benefit industry and the consumer alike. After all, the increasing use of biofuels in aviation will provide significant environmental benefits while stimulating our national economy from the nation’s farms to its terminals, and everywhere in between.