Waste to Energy: Generating transport fuel through industrial waste gas recycling

In the following article, the author further explores the sustainability aspects of having bio-fuel as the major source of fuel for propelling the aircrafts.

This article is a follow-up to ‘Flying Green – A Reality in the making’ published by the author in July 2011, where he had touched upon the various efforts which the major airline operators in India are undertaking to ensure a more sustainable supply of bio-fuels for the future.

“The demand for bio-fuels exists and so does the ability to grow this oil without impacting the food-chain. There’s no reason apart from the normal inertia as to why the aviation bio-fuel market will not evolve”, says Jim Rekoske, the VP and GM of Honeywell’s UOP renewable energy and chemicals business, who is helping lead an effort that has a growing demand, yet so far little supply.

The aviation industry can be seen as a ‘quick-win’ in switching from the conventional fossil fuel to bio-fuels as the industry has just 1700 airports as fuel points versus the hundreds of thousands of gas stations around the world. It would take around 12 billion gallons of biofuels, 120 million tons of biomass to be distributed at these 1700 or so airports around the world to reduce CO2 emissions by about 50%.

LanzaTech, a New Zealand based energy company has been quick to pounce on the opportunity and has introduced an innovative process of producing transport fuel from the recycling of waste gases that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere and this has given the firm an excellent opportunity to reduce emissions associated with the use of petroleum fuels in transportation space.

The effort to create an aviation bio-fuel market received a major fillip in the mid of 2011 when ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) International allowed bio-fuels to be blended upto 50% with conventional fuel for commercial flights. Experts envision that about 1- 1.5 billion gallons of plant-based oil would be converted to jet fuels and blended at up to a 50% mix with the 65 to 70 billion gallons of conventional jet fuel produced each year. This decision by ASTM coincided with the European Union’s efforts to get airlines covered under its Emissions Trading Scheme, which would subject the airlines operating in Europe to their emissions norms and the requirements under the cap-and-trade market. This entry barrier created by the EU might just work out to be the trigger for the major airlines to adopt a bio-fuel mix in the aviation fuels.

In the last decade, the BRIC countries have slowly edged ahead to become strong economies with India and China clearly emerging as the next global economic powerhouses. The robust growth of the Indian economy has led to a many-fold increase in the air-traffic influx into the country with all major economies in the world vying to get a piece of India’s bulging economic pie. The Indian aviation industry is one of the fastest growing in the world with overall traffic growth to average about 7.3% over the next 20 years compared with the currently global average of 4.7%, according to Airbus.

Having gauged the potential which India holds in store for the future of the World aviation market, Airbus is in the process of setting up a supply hub in India for cultivation of jatropha and other plants used in bio-fuel production. In India, Airbus is shaping partnerships with growers, transporters and refiners to make a bigger impact on the entire value chain. The main challenge now is to build fuel production facilities at a fast enough rate to meet the demand and the major hurdle here is that the already established refineries are not willing to throw open their doors to bio-fuels as it would cannibalize their own product i.e. ‘fossil-derived aviation fuel’. An even bigger road-block to the growth of bio-fuels in the aviation sector is to pair industries that don’t normally speak to each other - namely companies that will grow bio-fuel feedstock and those that refine conventional fuels.

Lanza Tech made ground-breaking progress in this field when they managed to motivate two (2)Indian corporates in collaborating to accelerate the deployment of the company’s proprietary gas fermentation technology to produce fuel ethanol from industrial off-gases. Indian Oil and Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) are exploring how to leverage their resources to implement a commercial scale ethanol plant using LanzaTech’s technology to process waste gases from a Jindal steel mill. The fuel ethanol produced by the plant would be blended into IndianOil’s gasoline pool. This proposed collaboration between IndianOil and JSPL will not only deliver a new, indigenous resource to India’s liquid transportation fuel pool, but it will also demonstrate that India’s new energy future requires the creation of novel business partnerships.

Virgin Atlantic is the first airline that has entered into a strategic alliance with Lanza Tech and this partnership represents a breakthrough in aviation fuel technology that will see waste gases from industrial steel production being captured, fermented and chemically converted using Swedish Biofuels technology for use as a jet fuel. The revolutionary fuel production process recycles waste gases that would otherwise be burnt into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Virgin is working with LanzaTech, Boeing and Swedish Biofuels towards achieving the technical approval required for using this new fuel type in commercial aircraft with a ‘demo’ flight with the new fuel planned in the coming 12-18 months.

LanzaTech estimates that its process can apply to 65 % of the world’s steel mills, allowing the fuel to be rolled out for worldwide commercial use. It also believes that this process can also apply to metals processing and chemical industries, growing its potential considerably further. Taking a cue from the potential of this technology, Virgin Atlantic plans flights with the new fuel on its routes from Shanghai and Delhi to London Heathrow within the next 2-3 years as LanzaTech and partners develop facilities in China and India.  The technology is currently being piloted in New Zealand and a larger demonstration facility will shortly be commissioned in Shanghai with the first commercial operation in place in China by 2014.  Lanza Tech plans a wider roll-out including operations in the UK and the rest of the world based on the success of the initial phase.

The alarming rate at which fossil fuel is getting depleted, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable, and with the steel industry alone able to deliver waste gases with a potential close to 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the opportunity is very exciting.  Going by the soundness of the technology and the sustainable nature of the supply chain, this new technology seems scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel. It is now only a matter of time when the aviation industry would shed the tag of being a major contributor to the world carbon footprint as this technology promises to reduce the CO2 emissions by almost 50%.

The author, Sandeep Roy is an Associate at a sustainability consulting firm cKinetics.

Image(s) Courtesy:
Lachlan Hardy
Lauren Tucker Photography

Author: Sandeep Roy