Canada’s airlines and the federal government are becoming ever more bullish about the use of biofuels to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation sector, with a series of experiments and ambitious announcements in recent months.
Meanwhile, a new survey of research into the full range of different biofuels from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering brings greater clarity over which biofuels are genuinely low-carbon and which ones aren’t. Furthermore, it looks like Air Canada’s preferred choice of second-generation biofuels are the best options with respect to global warming, land-use change, and food security.
Last week, representatives of the country’s largest airlines Air Canada and WestJet, told a global biotech conference that using feedstock from Canada’s rich forest and agricultural resources could make it an aviation alternative-fuel “superpower”.
In April, five Air Canada flights—using a blend of conventional jet fuel (kerosene) and biofuel—were chased by a National Research Council of Canada (NRC) research jet using sensing equipment to test the impact of biofuels on the aircrafts’ condensation trails (or contrails). Anthropogenic global warming is amplified by the combustion of fossil fuels in aircraft, but even more so by these water vapour contrails, which both reflect sunlight back into space and cool the planet, but also trap heat in the atmosphere and boost the warming effect.
The NRC’s findings reinforced earlier research it undertook with the space agency NASA and others, that found that biofuels could substantially decrease jet engine exhaust particles and thus reduce contrails. These latter trials had been on test aircraft, while the Air Canada flights involved Airbus A320 jets, the most common planes the airline uses and thus more representative of everyday flying.
In the same month, Air Canada joined the NRC and 14 other organisations in Canada’s Biojet Supply Chain Initiative (CBSCI), a three-year project aiming to introduce 400,000 litres of aviation biofuels at Montreal Airport. The end goal is to develop a domestic alternative fuel supply chain for the sector.
Meanwhile, among the conclusions of the aforementioned Royal Academy of Engineering analysis is that certain second-generation biofuels offer real prospects for reducing emissions, particularly in the aviation sector, where liquid fuels are the only realistic option for the near future other than still experimental electric planes.
They say that “in the first instance” these should be biofuels derived from agricultural, forest and sawmill residues, as well as from waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture and even ‘fatbergs’ from sewage systems. Any agricultural energy crops meanwhile should be grown on marginal land.
Third-generation biofuels created from algae, once thought to be the wonder-biofuel producing little stress on food security, however come in for a disappointment. While some studies show a marked emissions reduction on fossil fuels, even going negative in some cases, the engineers conclude that these studies are currently over-optimistic in their assumptions and that much more research will be needed before algal biofuels are ready for prime time.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.