Biofuels for cars and aircraft: an alternative to electric engines?

Biofuels becoming trendier and trendier

Every week, in France alone, 3 gas stations set up a brand-new bioethanol pump. The number of cars running on ethanol is growing at an impressive rate, and the development of biofuels for aviation is peaking up as well. Let’s analyze the reasons for such success.

Profit, rather than environmental concerns, is fueling their growth

Car and aircraft manufacturers have been producing internal combustion engines for more than a century. They are an oligopoly, a sort of cartel that dominate the market. Just think about the fact that there are less than 10 car manufacturers which control the world market since World War II, the only new entry being an electric car manufacturer, Tesla. Jet engine manufacturers are no more than 5. So, biofuels can allow them to profit from their dominant market position, since they enable them to continue producing the same kind of engines.

The ecological appeal of biofuels

In a time where “flying shame” discourages a growing percentage of travelers from flying, because jets, especially private jets, are deemed to be too polluting, biofuels same a good way to appease growing ecological fears. Governments promote them; for instance, ethanol is very slightly taxed in France, also in order to reduce from imported oil, since this country produces and exports ethanol.
Personally, I think that biofuels are not a viable solution not only in the short, but even in the medium and long-term. Indeed, they are too expensive, and before a sufficient supply chain can be set up, electric engines and batteries will have become enough cost-effective to beat the biofuel competition. Last but not least, biofuels are far less ecological than electricity. The only advantage that the bring, is that they can reduce temporarily our dependence on fossil fuels, which are even more polluting.

The French government intends to promote biofuels

The Airbus, Air France, Safran, Total and Suez Environnement groups reflected for almost two years on the conditions for the creation of a supply chain, after having signed in December 2017 with the State the commitment for green growth (ECV) on aeronautical biofuels. The government then defined the roadmap. Biofuels will have to be certified to aeronautical and sustainable standards, “without causing deforestation or competing with agricultural uses”, warned Elisabeth Borne, minister of ecological and united transition.

Up to 18% biofuel for Beluga

Since January, the new Beluga XL cargo plane, which transports aircraft sections between Airbus factories, uses up to 18% biofuel produced with used oils.

Six sources for the production of biofuels

Six sources of materials have been certified to be mixed with kerosene. The most advanced process is the hydrogenation of used vegetable oil and animal fats. There is also the incorporation of oil in petroleum refining, the gasification of biomass, the synthesis by isoparaffin (SIP) of sugar (sugar cane waste) and the distillation of ethanol. “Our bio-refinery in La Mède will be able to produce 100,000 tonnes of biofuel per year by hydrogenation of used vegetable oils and fats, but a supply chain must be created,” said Total Aviation Director Paul Mannes. In the meantime, the oil group imports its biokerosene from Brazil. “We have already certified security for a 50% mixture. We must now mobilize sustainable biomass, ”said its R & D director, Stéphane Cueillé. The fact remains that biofuels cost three to four times more. “Without incentive, it is not economically competitive. This requires the intervention of the public authorities to compensate for the additional cost, ”recalled Paul Mannes, at Total.

The 6th source is plant waste: a new synthetic route effectively converts cellulose into high-performance fuel. Researchers have developed a synthetic route that generates high-performance fuel for aircraft from plant waste – from straw, maize stalks or sawdust. The cellulose of these residues creates a mixture of hydrocarbons that is suitable as an aircraft fuel or kerosene additive. The highlight: this bio fuel has a higher energy density than kerosene and could therefore also be economically worthwhile. But for the moment, even this plant waste derivate fuel is way too expensive, about two to three times more expensive than normal aviation fuel.

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