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Alternative Fuels

Aviation has only one type of fuel, JETA1, so an alternative solution is very important for the entire sector.

Alternative fuel research is an important initiative to reduce the environmental impact of air transport. Thus, alternative fuels are a must for sustainable aviation growth and offer advantages over standard oil-derived jet fuel in terms of supply, diversity and eco-efficiency.

Aviation contributes to approximately two per cent of all man-made CO2 emissions. During the past 40 years, the industry has improved its fuel efficiency and reduced its related CO2 emissions by around 70 per cent. The air transport sector as a whole has voluntarily committed to meeting ambitious environmental targets, including carbon neutral growth by 2020 and a 50 per cent net reduction of CO2 emissions in 2050, compared to 2005 figures. Thus, alternative fuels can be a solution to this reduction.

Biofuels’ emissions are no less than fossil fuels’, but their plant supply sources fix CO2 as they grow – offsetting what will be emitted when they are burned.

Bio-fuels are an attractive alternative to standard kerosene because it requires neither aircraft nor engine modifications, and can be mixed with existing kerosene and used with the current-generation infrastructure.

There are at least three types of “drop-in” alternative fuel sources that can meet the performance of non-renewable (fossil) jet fuels, including biomass treated with the Fischer-Tropsch process; hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA); and hydrotreated cellulosic fibre (HCF).


Research and test flights have shown that synthetic bio-fuels can replace fossil fuels on today’s aircraft without the need for modification.  Airbus, for instance, estimates that sustainable biofuels could supply some 30 per cent of commercial aviation as early as 2030.

The biggest challenge is producing sustainable supplies in sufficient quantity, in order to provide necessary quantities of fuel at a competitive cost. The research has to be directed on fuels from sustainable plants or biomass supplies that do not impact socially or compete with food, land and water resources.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the research institutes need to continuously work with industry partners to fully explore alternative fuels’ potential value to the aviation industry. These efforts include:

  • supporting airlines to implement projects;
  • providing decision-makers with relevant bio-fuel data;
  • developing research programmes in collaboration with universities; and
  • supporting the regulatory approval process for new biofuels.

Process of implementing alternative fuels

The following EC Directives are involving the use of alternative fuels in Europe:

  • Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC
  • DIRECTIVE 2009/30/EC – amendment to Directive 98/70/EC on environmental quality standards for fuel (Fuel Quality Directive)

 Other important documents are:

  • COM 2003/30/EC (“Biofuels Directive”) of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 May 2003 on the promotion of the use of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport Official Journal L 123, 17/05/2003 P. 0042 – 0046
  • COM/2001/0547 final Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on alternative fuels for road transportation and on a set of measures to promote the use of biofuels
  • COM(2001) 547 final: Communication of the European Commission of 07/11/2001 on an Action Plan and two Proposals for Directives to foster the use of Alternative Fuels for Transport, starting with the regulatory and fiscal promotion of biofuels
  • Directive 98/70/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 October 1998 relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amending Council Directive 93/12/EEC  OJ L 350, 28.12.1998, p. 58–68
  • Commission Directive 87/441/EEC of 29 July 1987 on crude-oil savings through the use of substitute fuel components in petrol  OJ L 238, 21.8.1987, p. 40–41

In cooperation with the European Commission, leading airlines and biofuel producers, Airbus has helped launch an ambitious industry-wide initiative to help speed up the commercialization of aviation biofuels in Europe.

Announced in June 2011, this pan-sector effort – which has been labeled “Biofuel Flightpath” – establishes clear milestones which target an annual production of two million tonnes of sustainable produced biofuel for aviation by 2020.  The biofuel will be produced in Europe from European-sourced supplies.

This plan also highlights and supports the construction of an industrial “first of a kind” advanced biofuel production plants.


Inclusion of Aviation in the EU Emission Trading Scheme ETS

Starting with 2012, all flights in and out of EU airports are to be included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme  (a scheme based on a “cap and trade” system for emissions allowances).



AUSTRALIA_ May 2011: A study to determine the feasibility of the Australian and New Zealand aviation sector using sustainable biofuels to meet industry carbon reduction targets concludes that a bio-derived jet fuel industry could decrease aviation emissions by 17 per cent and generate more than 12,000 jobs by 2030. Commissioned by a range of aviation interests, the ‘Flight Path to Sustainable Aviation’ report does not make policy recommendations but is aimed at providing critical input to strategic policy and investment decision-making for both stakeholders and policy makers. It puts forward a roadmap scenario in which the aviation sectors of the two countries could achieve a five per cent biofuel share in their total fuel use by 2020, expanding that amount to 40 per cent by 2050. Taking a lead in the development of a sustainable aviation fuels industry could also create the opportunity for the region to export high-value engineering know-how to the world..


SUA_ July 2010: a substantial demand for sustainable aviation biofuels in the Northwest region of the United States, according to a report published by over 40 stakeholders representing the aviation and biofuels industries, research, agriculture and forestry, and government agencies. The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) initiative – largely driven by Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Washington State University and three of the region’s largest airports – has identified potential pathways and actions needed to make aviation biofuels available to airline operators in the region. While the study does not advocate permanent government support, public investment and parity with other biofuels programmes will be required, particularly in the early stages, to place the industry on an economically competitive basis…

BRAZIL: The Brazilian Bio-Jetfuel Platform, involving jatropha(species of plants, shrubs and trees) to produce biofuel is a collaboration led by Curcas Diesel Brasil to form a jet biofuel value chain from ‘field to wing’ in the country. Quinvita, one of the partners  will work with the platform’s partners on the deployment of its proprietary knowledge in jatropha agronomy and processing, and will test its advanced jatropha cultivars in selected locations in Brazil. Curcas Diesel Brazil played a key role in sourcing jatropha feedstocks for a demonstration flight undertaken last November by TAM Airlines on an Airbus A320. Since then, TAM and Airbus have formed a separate alliance with a Curcas breakaway company called Jet Bio, and are targeting a supply of 80,000 tonnes of jatropha-based jet fuel in 2013.

EUROPE: June 2011 – A major technical milestone has been reached in the introduction of renewable aviation biofuels as the main standards body responsible for certifying fuels has granted preliminary approval for their use in commercial operations after a ballot by a committee of industry, air force and regulatory stakeholders was unanimously passed

The EU recently set out its ambitions for biofuels to make up 40 per cent of the overall aviation mix by 2050.

Spain_ May 2011: A research facility is to be set up at Madrid-Barajas Airport by Iberia, airport authority Aena and microalgae technology company AlgaEnergy to explore the potential of microalgae as a biofuel to power airport ground vehicles and aircraft. The overall project will involve research and experimentation as well as improving technologies for sequestering carbon dioxide and the cultivation of microalgae. The purpose is to reduce the production costs of biomass and to achieve profitable biofuel production.

ROMANIA: Mar 2011 – Airbus and Romanian airline TAROM have launched a biofuel project that they hope may lead to commercial-scale production of sustainable jet biofuel derived from the camelina plant. A high-energy oilseed crop, camelina has been grown in Romania for thousands of years and tests in the United States have shown it to be a promising feedstock for jet biofuel. Feasibility studies will be carried out by a consortium of key stakeholders on a range of different seed varieties and harvesting methods, with Airbus acting as the catalyst in setting up a Romanian ‘value chain’ towards production. Manchester Metropolitan University is involved to assess the sustainability criteria along the entire camelina value chain.  The Consortium hopes to achieve a minimum 50 per cent reduction in life-cycle GHG emissions compared to conventional jet kerosene.

The camelina plant was selected for the Romanian-based bio-fuel project due to its energy potential, rotational crop qualities and low water requirements.

In March 2011, it also was announced that Airbus and TAROM Romanian Air Transport – together with a consortium of key stakeholders – have established one of Europe’s first projects for a sustainable bio-kerosene jet-fuel processing and production capability.

What actions has been taken to implement use of alternative fuels?

“The transfer from fossil fuels to biofuels is a must if the air transport industry is to survive beyond the middle of century,”

was the stark message from Dirk van Vreckem of the European Commission’s mobility and transport directorate (DG MOVE) at a conference in Toulouse, France  in 2011. He said a business-as-usual increase in aviation emissions of 150 per cent by 2050 over 1990 levels was unsustainable. Contributors to the study pointed out the strong challenges posed if biofuels are to play an important role in helping meet industry emissions reduction targets, identifying sustainability, biomass availability and investment as key obstacles to be overcome.

There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades. Reducing sulfur content of kerosene will reduce SOxO emissions and sulfate particle formation.

Jet aircraft require fuel with a high energy density, especially for long-haul flights. Other fuel options, such as hydrogen, may be viable in the long term, but would require new aircraft designs and new infrastructure for supply. Hydrogen fuel would eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide from aircraft, but would increase those of water vapor.

The basic actions needed to implement the use of alternative fuel in aviation sector, implies several steps:

  • existing legislation in place;
  • availability
  • competitive price;
  • motivation


In Europe, the airlines will be more motivated to use biofuels than in other parts of the world due to the EU-ETS which requires emissions reduction.


CATE Research

Projects run by Airbus in which CATE researchers are involved are:

Australia: studying new pathways to produce sustainable aviation fuels in a consortium that includes Virgin Australia, with the goal to convert Eucalyptus mallee trees – which are indigenous to Australia – into an alternative fuel using a process called Pyrolysis. This consortium includes Future Farm Industries CRC, which is developing sustainable farming systems as part of the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) programme.

ROMANIA:  Romanian Camelina camelina value chain, already in the second year. Partners include: Airbus, TAROM; Biotehgen; COMOTI; camelina Company Espana; UOP

A demonstrative flight operated by TAROM is scheduled for the second part of 2012.

China: the project will investigate the opportunities to produce sustainable aviation biofuel based on a selected sustainable feedstock in China. This is part of an initiative launched with China Eastern, SINOPEC and Tsinghua University to establish a Value Chain for BioFuel production and use in China by Aviation (China Eastern). MMU CATE will asses the sustainability across the selected value chain and work closely with Tsinghua University

India; With local driver being Jet Airways. It involves assessing biofuels perspectives in India; process for fuel qualification & certification; demo flight organization.

CATE and a local university partner (not yet chosen) will be involved in assessing BioFuel Value Chain and Sustainability criteria. However, the type of biomass needs to be selected for this particular project.  Jatropha can be a candidate, but discussions are still on between partners.

Outcomes of CATE research

CATE will deliver reports on Sustainability across the biofuel value chain, per each project. Also, CATE will organize roundtable discussions and workshop to disseminate results, facilitate knowledge transfer to local teams  and discuss gaps and corrective actions.

The area of aviation alternative fuels is a growing area of interest for CATE researchers.

Key contacts

Dr Delia Dimitriu


Leading global aircraft manufacturer Airbus has committed to developing mallee-based biofuel after entering into partnership with the New Woody Crops research program run by Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre.