More than 87,000 flights take off each day in the United States, and of those flights, approximately 1.56 million barrels of jet fuel is consumed, according to the Energy Information Administration Short-Term Energy Outlook. This indicates a priority for the airline industry to develop cleaner alternative sources of jet fuel—a huge priority for the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO).
In 2014, BETO joined Farm to Fly 2.0, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Aviation Administration, and commercial airlines to develop a viable renewable jet fuel market. This year alone marked an industry milestone as United Airlines became the first major U.S. airline to use commercial-scale volumes of biofuel for regularly scheduled flights.
For aviation and heavy-duty transportation, biofuel technologies offer one of the only energy alternatives to traditional petroleum-based sources.
The development and deployment of cost-competitive renewable jet fuels also offer the largest opportunity for the aviation industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring long-term fuel security and price stability for the sector. These “drop-in” renewable jet fuels meet the same specifications as petroleum jet fuel—meaning they can be used in today’s aircrafts and engines without engine modification and provide the same level of performance and safety.
The commercial aviation industry has made offtake agreements to biofuel companies, including Red Rock Biofuels, LLC and Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc. These are two projects receiving funds under the Advanced Drop-in Biofuels Production Project of the Defense Production Act, a joint initiative between the Departments of Energy and Agriculture.
In 2015, FedEx Express and Southwest Airlines entered into a jet fuel supply agreement with Red Rock Biofuels to purchase its jet fuel once the biorefinery is constructed and producing. Also in 2015, United Airlines announced a $30 million equity investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc., the largest investment by a domestic airline in the alternative fuels market.
Beyond these investments, which indicate industry promise, some companies are already reaching significant technology milestones. Renewable fuel company LanzaTech recently announced its achievement of producing 1,500 gallons of renewable jet fuel from industrial waste gases.
This revolutionary process, developed in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and funded in part by BETO, works in two stages. First, carbon monoxide, a byproduct of incomplete combustion and key emission from the steel industry, is captured and fed to microbes that consume the gas and produce ethanol. This ethanol, called “Lanzanol,” is then converted into a renewable jet fuel. The final jet fuel product, which is compatible with existing aviation infrastructure, will be used in planes flown by Virgin Atlantic.
Through these efforts, BETO, federal partners, and the aviation industry are building a vibrant and robust alternative jet fuel sector that will be part of a thriving bioeconomy.
Amped Up! Magazine is the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s publication that highlights breaking technologies and achievements in renewable power, energy efficiency and sustainable transportation that influence global change toward a clean energy economy.