Aviation could run on sustainable fuels by 2050, says British Airways

By Tierney Smith

planes up close and far away

(Source: BA)

Aviation could potentially be run on sustainable fuels by 2050 according to British Airway’s Environment Manager.

But current aircraft design means that, while alternative fuels like hydrogen and solar are being developed, the main focus will still be on liquid fuels which fit current engine capabilities; and this means the often controversial use of biofuels.

Speaking to RTCC, Leigh Hudson said: “The aircrafts that are being designed now for the next 10 years are liquid fuel based, and although they have done a few projects around hydrogen and solar, it would need a big step change in the technology to enable us to change.”

British Airways have two main areas of focus in their biofuels programme. Their first major project – with American biofuels company, Solena – aims to bring a waste bioliquids plant to the UK, converting several types of waste material, destined for landfill, into aviation fuel.

The plant is expected to convert 551,000 tonnes of waste into 16 million gallons of jet fuel each year, and Hudson said it was a “good starting point for the company” as it removes the food-fuel tension and has the potential for up to 95 per cent lifecycle savings compared to conventional fuel.

Meanwhile in a separate partnership with Rolls Royce, the company are looking into new, innovative fuels, from sources such as algae – using novel technologies. Their aim is to stay away from crop based fuels, while there are still question marks surrounding their use.

“Where we can see a real sustainability benefit and a building capacity in a technology we will do that and where we’re not sure of the sustainability we will keep looking for the next big thing.

“I don’t think we’re confident enough about crop based biofuels currently to go down that route and while I still think there will be crops that will fulfil that function right now we’re just not convinced”, said Hudson.

Biofuels, once hailed as a solution to decarbonising the transport sector, are now treated with much more caution. Questions have been raised about their sustainability and their potential to cause deforestation and exacerbate food security problems.

WWF calls for companies who are investing in biofuels research to work with voluntary groups such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, which address the social and environmental impact of biofuels.

László Máthè, from WWF International said: “Bioenergy isn’t inherently good or bad. Under the right conditions, it can help mitigate climate change and make reliable energy a reality for more people around the globe. However, under the wrong condition, it puts even greater stress on our plant’s already overtaxed resources.”

Friends of the Earth, however, want more focus to be placed on reducing the demand for air travel but halting airport expansion and promoting the use of video conferencing technologies and better rail services.

There are also still barriers to biofuel powered aviation. Recent tests, including recent flights by Thomson and Iberia, ran on 50 per cent biofuel in one of two jet engines – there is still work to be done before a flight can become 100 per cent biofuel.

Kerosene, currently used as jet fuel, contains specific compounds which interact with the aircraft system in a particular way,  without which the airline can not be powered. Biofuels, while cleaner, do not contain these compounds and so must be mixed with conventional fuel.

Hudson, however, is positive about the future for aviation, and the potential for sustainable fuels. She said: “Aviation currently account for 10 per cent of transport fuels. Currently in Europe about three to four per cent of road transport is powered by biofuels. If we were to switch over what we are producing just in Europe now – not that it’s technically feasible, but say it were – it would cover half of the aviation fuel.

“The industry could decarbonise. We could be running the whole of aviation on sustainable fuels by 2050.”

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