Académie des technologies

What is the future for aeronautical bio-fuels?

In a joint Report, the French Air and Space Academy (FASA) and the National Academy of Technologies of France (NATF) provide a state-of-the-art both technically and from a global regulatory standpoint for aeronautical bio-fuels with a specific focus on French achievements in this field and a technological road-map as to the possible future for the development of biofuels.

Continuous growth of air traffic figures – the forecast is a doubling of traffic between 2030 and 2050 – has led air companies to seek ways and means to reduce the impact of aviation of climate change, in a context with rarefaction of fossil fuel resources. Using aeronautical biofuels aka ‘biojet fuels’ are seen as one of the factors that will enable a significant reduction of chemical emissions. France possesses all the strong points that allow the country to be a key player in this field. Numerous biojet fuel sectors have been identified and are currently under development with a view to certification.

However, over and above the availability of biomass resources which is not unlimited, the lack of a sufficiently clear legal and financial framework and the difficulty to identify a competitive economic model constitute hurdles that slow the development of this new technology. The questions that relate to the emergence of a bio-economy are with us now.
The joint FASA-NATF Working Party addressed various experts in research centres and associate industries viz., in aeronautics, jet-fuel producers and distributors, bio-fuel producers. The WP organized numerous hearings with experts and personalities in this field and published the first French report on the future of aviation biofuels.

Both academies issued several recommendations to the public authorities to enable and enhance development of biojet fuels:
– To set up and adopt a stable regulatory and financial framework, in order to guarantee the demand for the products and to enable the industrialists to invest. For instance, a first step) could be a clear inclusion of “aeronautics” in the Renewable Energies Directive. The actors must be in a position to earmark financial means that are coherent with the policy defined, notably in Europe, round the European Advanced Biofuels Flight Path, the objective of which is to produce 2 M tonnes of biojet fuels/yr. by 2020. However, the technologies needed to produce biojet fuels are complex and more expensive than those used to produce road vehicle fuels, for the simple reason that you must be able to obtain an oxygen-free fuel; furthermore, in an international sector like this, in which aviation fuel is not taxed, the regulatory constraints (mandatory inclusion, tax-free products) for road vehicle fuels do not apply. The role of public authorities here is crucial and must be seen in a long-term political vision, with a stable regulatory framework and, wherever possible with financial incentives all of which comprise the conditions necessary to attract investors.

  • To ensure rigorous planning of land attributions so as to limit the Land Use Change effects. The continued destruction of certain eco-systems that are strong carbon reservoirs and/or CO2 sequestration areas (such as forests), replacing them with agricultural land that release in to the atmosphere part of the carbon they previously stored in the soils. Emission such as these are to be counted negatively in the biofuel carbon print.
  • To define priority uses. There is emerging and/or traditional competition for biomass – a competition for road vehicle biofuels, which started over 15 years ago; a more recent form of competition with developing markets such as biomolecules (glues, solvents …), biomaterials (fibres, polymers, plastics, … ), bio-ingredient additives (cosmetics, food supplements …) over and above the more traditional uses such as heating, timber, paper-making, etc. The great number and wide range of uses for biomass call for a clear arbitration by the public authorities concerned.
  • To help the upstream sector producing biomass to become aware and informed of the specific needs of aeronautics. The aeronautics sector can provide an opportunity to offset, for example, for a possible drop in the European, objectives for road vehicle fuels. An initiative, called Biofuel Initiative France was established June 2013 by joint agreement among Airbus, Air France, Safran and Total. An extension to the main French industrialists who invest in biomass ventures could prove useful, as already exists in the USA (the Farm and Fly Initiative 2012).