In order to determine if the production of a renewable jet fuel to replace fossil based jets is feasible, a study is currently underway to develop a bioport at Brisbane Airport, which would be capable of supplying aircraft with sustainable jet fuel produced from biological sources. The biofuel would need to be competitively priced, produced in significant quantities, meet the same technical standards as fossil fuel and be internationally recognised as a sustainable resource.

How feasible is an aviation bioport?

Corporate communications adviser for Virgin Australia Luke O’Donnell says: "The feasibility study involves objectively assessing a range of feedstock and technology options to come up with the best pathway, which will address our future fuel requirements and prove investment ready.

"The greatest challenge is closing the price difference between bio-jet fuel and fossil fuel. Ensuring we pursue the most efficient and cost-effective research and development path will help us make bio-jet fuel commercially viable sooner."

Merel Laroy, marketing and sales manager for Dutch company SkyNRG, expands on this: "The next phase of the bioport will entail selecting the most optimal feedstock and conversion technology combination, working with feedstock and technology players, and undertaking a comprehensive techno-economic due diligence and sustainability analysis. The outcome of this exercise will be the identification of a structured supply chain and a bankable business case to commercialise the opportunity."

Bioport challenges

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Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN)’s systems and synthetic biology group business manager Dr. Robert Speight highlights some more challenges when developing a biofuel: feedstock supply to feed the refining process, developing a processing plant for refining and associated distribution systems and economic issues related to production and pricing.

Speight says: "There are potentially many different feedstocks. These can range from fibrous cellulose, to algae and gaseous waste. Each feedstock offers unique refining and distribution challenges. In theory, any wood or fibrous waste or grass can be the starting point for bio-fuel."

However, it takes enormous quantities of feedstock to produce the volume of bio-fuel that will be needed.

"The aim of the bio-fuel project is to produce the fuels as much as possible from sources which would otherwise be waste products," Speight adds.

"Ideally, fuel production would be non-competitive with food production, both in terms of agricultural output and land dedicated to production."

Laroy confirms this: "it is critical that we only proceed with the development of feedstocks that meet stringent social and environmental sustainability requirements. This means that feedstock production does not compete with food production, maintains or enhances biodiversity, and has a positive socio-economic impact on regional communities."

"Production capacity of sustainable aviation fuel is not yet established to the degree required to demonstrate its techno-economic viability."

However, biomass refining tends to be more complex than petroleum refining. It is crucial that the end product exactly matches the performance of currently used aviation fuels and the performance characteristics match within a sensible tolerance in order to be certified.

"Different processes are required for each of the different types of biomass input," Speight continues.

"We can’t change the existing distribution infrastructure. The fuel produced must be able to use the existing distribution network and the testing of potential fuels to ensure that they match the performance of existing fuels is a lengthy process."

"Production capacity of sustainable aviation fuel is not yet established to the degree required to demonstrate its techno-economic viability," Laroy continues.

"This is an important factor preventing the wide-scale construction of production capacity."

"Initial studies and test flights suggest that bio-jet fuel provides the same performance as fossil fuel," assues O’Donnell.

"Chemically, bio-jet fuel is identical to fossil based jet fuel and can be used in modern engines and fuelling infrastructure without the need for modification."

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Laroy agrees, saying, "In some cases, sustainable jet fuel (SJF) even has a slightly better engine performance."

As for economic issues, Speight refers to research conducted by AIBN.

"Currently-available bio-fuels are roughly three times as expensive as existing aviation fuels," he says.

"This figure is a bit misleading, as it includes the heavy start-up costs needed to build the infrastructure to refine bio-fuels. Petroleum-based aviation fuels have the advantage that they can utilise the enormous existing oil refining infrastructure."

These marginal costs are expected to come down as the production and use of bio-fuels increases. However, this research was on only one route and there will be different costs to other routes and other feedstocks.

"Currently, SJF is more expensive than fossil jet fuel. In the last three years, the price of SJF dropped from 20 times the price of fossil jet fuel to two-three times the price," Laroy confirms.

"Currently-available bio-fuels are roughly three times as expensive as existing aviation fuels."

"In the next five years, we expect to have set up multiple regional integrated supply chains that can benefit from economies of scale and will produce SJF at or below fossil jet fuel prices."

Although some of the factors driving bio-fuels are not economic, such as a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the start-up costs must still come from somewhere.

Speight says: "All new technology is expensive. It will take years to amortise research and development and infrastructure creation to a point where the real per-barrel cost of the fuel is competitive with petroleum products."

Ultimately, he believes the question remains: how can you bridge the gap in economics between old and new technologies?

Why Brisbane?

So, why was Brisbane chosen as the ideal location for Australia’s new bioport? Hellemons says: "Brisbane Airport is the premier gateway to Queensland and the second busiest airport in Australia by aircraft numbers. This provides us with a rare opportunity to take on an important enabling role in the project through helping it gain traction in a high-volume aviation environment."

According to O’Donnell, Brisbane is Virgin Australia’s home base with around half of all flights taking place in, out and within Queensland.

He says: "The future viability of bio-jet fuel is highly dependent on its physical availability. Furthermore, Queensland has a variety of different feedstocks for conversion to fuel."

Laroy adds: "Queensland has natural advantages as a location for the development of bio-based products, with abundant bio-energy resources and large areas of marginal land with scope for sustainable feedstock production. The state has a well-developed agricultural sector and expertise in the cultivation and processing raw materials."

A model to follow

It will be beneficial to establish bioports worldwide, in order to reduce the price difference of biofuel in the future.

Laroy says, "We are developing bioports at five continents worldwide. The most recent success we obtained was with BioPort Holland."

Speight adds, "Brisbane will be the second bioport. KLM already flies a weekly biofuel flight to New York City. The objective in Brisbane is to develop a scalable infrastructure model, which can be replicated around the world."