In 2017 air travel accounted for 859 million metric tons of CO2. That’s about 12% of emissions from transport sources.
According to this 2016 report, one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight produces enough CO2 to melt 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice. By 2050 the International Civil Aviation Organization anticipates that global aviation emissions will be 700% greater than they were in 2005. In addition to carbon dioxide, when at cruising altitude, planes emit nitrogen oxides and sulfates that trap heat and contribute to global warming.
The International Air Transport Association aims to reach carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and reduce CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050. To reach these ambitious goals, airlines such as Jetblue Airways Corp., Cathy Pacific Airways Ltd. and United Continental Holdings Inc. have issued statements signing onto the mission. As the effort to achieve emissions goals develops, some methods of producing alternative fuel — that require no changes to the existing air travel infrastructure — have begun to break ground.
Here are some of the exciting ways the airline industry is investing in innovative carbon-cutting technology:
1. Cooking Oil
In September 2018, Jetblue’s A321 Aircraft made the first-ever flight using a renewable jet fuel blend, 15.5% of which came from used cooking oil from restaurants. In 2016 the airline announced plans to buy more than 33 million gallons of renewable blended jet fuel a year for a minimum of 10 years.
2. Mustard Seed
Also in September 2018, United Airlines made a 787 mile flight from San Francisco to Zurich using a mustard seed-based biofuel blend made by Quebec’s Agrisoma Biosciences Inc. Roughly 30% of the jet fuel used for the flight was made up of the biofuel, so the airline estimated a 30% reduction in greenhouse emissions.
3. Beef, Chicken Fat and Hemp
In Los Angeles, AltAir Paramount LLC has successfully converted beef tallow to biofuel, as well as chicken fat and hemp into jet fuel. Cheaper than virgin vegetable oils, inedible waste oils can be similarly converted into jet fuel.
In 2013, United Airlines signed a three-year agreement to purchase as much as five million gallons of alternative jet fuel [AJF] from AltAir starting in 2016. During this period, United Airlines agreed to use a fuel blend of 30% AJF and 70% conventional fuel.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy, “biofuels are the key to mitigating the growth constraints of the aviation industry.”
You read that correctly. A company in Zurich called Climeworks has developed a carbon capture plant that sucks CO2 out of the air to sell as fuel. Climeworks combines the CO2 taken out of the air with water to create fuel and other carbon-based products such as plastics. By closing the carbon cycle, this technology is able to literally create fuel out of thin air.
A company doing this carbon processing explicitly for jet fuel is Carbon Engineering in Canada. Their AIR TO FUELS™ technology recycles atmospheric CO2 into liquid fuel for less than $1.00 a liter. With no sulfur and low particulates, CE’s fuels reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
Another California-based company called Fulcrum Bioenergy has devised a groundbreaking way to make low-cost transportation fuels out of household garbage. In a win-win for combating climate change, the company is taking large amounts of waste from local landfills to use as feedstock for the fuel, thereby also reducing methane emissions.
Although it has yet to begin production, Fulcrum plans to supply United with nearly 10 billion gallons of fuel during the next decade.
Though still elusive, the hotly anticipated electric-powered commercial aircrafts are reportedly still on their way with an ETA of…soon. Boeing and JetBlue-backed Zunum Aero is developing a hybrid-electric aircraft for regional travel to be available by the early 2020s. By 2030 the aircrafts will reportedly be able to travel up to 1,000 miles.
Exploring a similar market, Eviation Aircraft is developing a nine-passenger, self-piloted, all-electric aircraft for regional travel. The company plans to debut its commuter aircraft at the 53rd Paris Air Show in June of this year.
Challenges to these revolutionary alternatives gaining the necessary traction include high costs to building the production facilities needed to create alternative fuels, availability of biofuel feedstock and the resistance to changing an industry that’s been using fossil fuels for 150 years. As these new technologies develop and become increasingly accessible, we hope the aviation industry becomes as eager to put them to use as we are to fly across the Atlantic in a plane powered by literal air.
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