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The Game-Changing Fuel That Could Shake Up the Aviation Industry

If I asked you to name the aviation industry’s most impressive figures and their milestones, you’d probably pick out…

  • The Wright Brothers, who invented and built the world’s first aircraft, then famously conducted their inaugural flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
  • Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic.
  • Howard Hughes, the engineer and businessman who built aircraft, set several air speed records, and built Trans World Airlines into a powerhouse.

But allow me to add another history-making achievement that I bet you wouldn’t think of…

Taking off from Ottawa International Airport on an otherwise normal day last October, the twin-engine Falcon 20 was the world’s first flight to use 100% biofuel. It reached 30,000 feet in the process. Pilot Tim Leslie described the feat as “truly inspiring.”

And potentially game-changing.

Yes… I know clean, green alternative fuels have struggled to gain widespread consumer adoption.

But biofuel is gaining traction as a viable fuel in aviation, as airlines try to reduce carbon emissions. And a handful of companies are ready to lead the way…

The Solution to This Global Problem is… the Globe Itself

As you know, today’s aircraft run on kerosene. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pollution from the aviation industry accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Granted, that sounds pretty insignificant. But Steven Barrett, Assistant Professor of Astronautics and Aeronautics at MIT, tells the BBC, “In terms of climate impact, it’s somewhat higher than that. Estimates vary from 5% to 10%, because of the altitude at which planes fly. Emissions from planes have a different impact than they would on the ground.”

The problem is only going to worsen, as airline passenger numbers and flights are projected to double by 2030.

Enter, biofuels.

Algae, cooking oil, coconut, and rapeseed oil (the latter of which helped power the Falcon 20) are just some of the more environmentally friendly options open to the new age of aviation innovators.

In fact, figures from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), which owns the Falcon 20, showed a 50% drop in emissions, versus traditional fossil fuel – consistent with other positive rapeseed studies.

Both the government and aviation’s biggest players are embracing the biofuel option…

Powered By Plants

Last week, the U.S. government extended the Farm to Fly program, which aims to produce one billion gallons of aviation biofuel by 2018.

Aviation giant Boeing (BA) is also heavily invested in biofuels. Chief Technology Officer, Dr. John Tracy, tells the BBC that the company is “very aggressive… probably 75% of the R&D dollars we invest in the commercial airplane side goes towards improving our environmental footprint.”

That’s because it’s easier, quicker and cheaper to adapt aircraft to biofuels, rather than redesigning more energy-efficient planes, or powering them in more expensive ways.

Since Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to successfully use a combination of regular jet fuel and biofuel on a flight from London to Amsterdam in 2008, the number of biofuel tests has risen.

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and a host of global airlines have conducted various biofuel flights. And in June 2011, KLM was the first to run biofuel in a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Paris.

Just today, a China Eastern Airlines Airbus 320 operated an 85-minute flight using biofuel that Sinopec (SHI) developed from palm oil and recycled cooking oil. The pilots told Xinhua that the fuel was “no different from traditional fuels.” That’s a vital benefit.

And the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has already approved up to 50% of biofuels made from inedible plants and waste in conjunction with kerosene for commercial flights.

The “inedible” part is important, as it avoids the issues that trigger such controversy with consumer-based alternative biofuels like corn for ethanol – i.e., how production for energy usage competes with food production and thus contributes to rising food prices as a result.

A New Age of Aviation Innovation

The aviation industry has come a long way since the days of the early pioneers.

But although the players have changed, innovation remains just as critical.

The aviation fuel market alone is massive – worth around $140 billion a year. And biofuels are gaining wider acceptance as an alternative fuel to kerosene. The International Air Transport Association estimates that by 2020, 30% of jet fuel will be made up of biofuels.

That bodes well for companies like Solazyme (SZYM), UOP – a division of Honeywell International (HON) – and Neste Oil (NES1V), which trades in Finland.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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