Biofuels Slowly Take Flight with the Airline Industry

Jul 22, 2011 11:00 AM ET

Airlines won final approval from a U.S.-based technical-standards group to power their planes with a blend made from traditional kerosene and biofuels derived from inedible plants and organic waste.”

Air Aviation News, July 2, 2011

I’ve heard a lot about biofuel for aviation tests, but they always sounded suspiciously like airline ‘greenwashing’ PR to me. Richard Branson’s $3 billion bet on an aviation biofuel company went bankrupt. Successful tests turned out to be only fractionally biofuel. Journalists joked about the smell of french fries filling the air. Is biofuel for aviation anything more than good promotion? I posed this question to Steve Verhes, Executive Director of Cascadia Carbon Institute, a Washington state biofuel expert and advocate. Steve’s answer: It’s complicated.

First, there is the food-to-fuel issue – a very real concern, especially with food price increases accelerating this year. But the aviation standards group in charge of the approval took care of that, mandating that aerospace biofuels be derived only from inedible plants.

Then there is the issue of converting even more land to agriculture—another bogey, especially in Steve’s hyper-environmental region, Washington state, where 700,000 acres of timberland were lost between 1978 and 2001.

The answer: Biofuel from inedible canola seed. Not only is canola not a food source, it requires no new land for cultivation in the Northwest. Canola is also an excellent rotation crop, re-invigorating soil that’s been depleted producing wheat or other crops, without requiring new land.

Best of all, canola can grow in areas too dry for most crops. Land that the Department of Agriculture is currently paying farmers not to farm in order to conserve soil. Without careful soil preservation techniques, giant dust storms can easily develop, wreaking havoc on local citizens and blowing away topsoil. Without topsoil, farmland becomes agriculturally unusable. Planting canola would not only hold down valuable topsoil, but it would produce a profit for struggling farmers.     

The idea was so enticing that Imperium Renewables built the biggest biofuel processing plant in the world in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. The plant was capable of producing 100 million gallons of biodiesel – enough to power 2% of the state’s needs. There would have been no shortage of demand either, as the plant was located in the heart of the U.S. aviation industry and Boeing, already highly rated for environmental performance, had publicly committed to transitioning to biofuel.

But problems arose. 

Continue reading about biofuel's slow rise in the airline industry.  


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.