Finding an alternative way to fuel the aviation industry

More than 135,000 people will visit the Paris Air Show this week to explore the next generation of aviation innovation. Developing next generation of aviation jet fuels must be a part of this conversation.

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Sustainable alternative aviation fuels are within our grasp. The science and the economics are all fairly well understood — though there’s plenty of room for innovation and improvement. Making it a reality, however, requires a long-term investment in research and supply chain development coupled with stable government policies.

The airline industry is a vital element and a powerful, growing driver of the global economy. It serves more than 3 billion air travelers annually — a number that will likely expand to nearly 4 billion by the end of the decade — and generates about $720 billion in revenue worldwide. In the United States, about 500 aviation industry companies bring in $190 billion each year.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) notes that aircraft emit 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and could contribute as much as 5 percent by 2050. If U.S. and global leaders want the airline industry to continue to grow while simultaneously wishing to have a global environment conducive to a high quality of life for ourselves and future generations, government must enact policies that drive adoption of alternative jet fuels and support the creation of new alternative jet fuel supply chains.

The global commercial aviation industry and governmental regulatory bodies have been working toward the goal of meeting capacity growth in an environmentally responsible manner. Developing and deploying alternative jet fuels for commercial aviation is a major component of the United States Aviation Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan. And the Environmental Protection Agency took a first step last week toward addressing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, proposing that certain emissions “contribute to the air pollution that causes climate change and endangers public health and welfare.”

But the aviation industry faces numerous challenges to creating enough drop-in alternative jet fuels to meet the demands of the growing market.

First, the extensive process of certifying potential alternative jet fuels is beyond the fiscal and, in many cases, infrastructural capabilities of small companies – yet it is within these companies that alternative jet fuel innovations are being explored and developed. Second, alternative fuels face a complex uphill battle for achieving economic viability, as companies must find ways to make money while selling alternative fuels at the price of fossil jet fuel. Finally, there is only a limited supply of public and private funds available to support alternative fuels research.

Despite those challenges, organizations like the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), which Washington State University leads, have engaged in collaborative efforts with public and private partners to meet the goals of the United States.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is using ASCENT, a consortium of 16 universities co-led by WSU and MIT, to drive toward the environmental and energy goals of the Next Generation Air Transportation System. This FAA Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and the Environment is exploring ways to produce and certify sustainable aviation fuels at commercial scale, creating an industry with the potential for large-scale economic development and job creation.

Another driving force is the Commercial Aviation Alternative Jet Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), a coalition of airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy producers, researchers, international participants, and U.S. government agencies that, together, are leading the development and deployment of alternative jet fuels. CAAFI’s website contains a wealth of information about the status of potential alternative fuels, about the process of fuel certification, and much more.

Lessons learned in the NARA project, which involves industrial and academic partners, concerning the path to economically and sustainable produce alternative jet fuel include: (1) the sensitivity of the economics to capital investment, which underscores the desirability of repurposing or modifying existing pulp mills; and (2) the necessity of having a series of marketable co-products. The FAA Center of Excellence (ASCENT), along with industrial partners and federal agencies and laboratories, are exploring ways to streamline the alternative jet fuel certification process through a multi-partner project known as the National Jet Fuel Combustion Program.

We as the research and scientific community, as industry partners, as a nation and as a global community, need to embrace our shared future and the desire for ever-increasing global standards of living that will depend on a robust aviation industry. We must redouble our research efforts to ensure that the growth will occur in an environmentally benign way and without an undue economic burden.


Ralph Cavalieri, Ph.D., is the Associate Vice President for Alternative Energy and Professor of Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University. He also serves as the director of the USDA NIFA project, Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, and as the director of the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment, ASCENT.