By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – Brazil could take the lead in research on biofuels for aviation, following its own example in the auto sector, in which it became one of the first countries in the world to have its auto fleet fueled by biofuel.
Nevertheless, the country will have to overcome several obstacles in the areas of science, technology, agricultural production and public policy, among others, through coordinated efforts with companies from the aeronautical and biotechnology sectors, along with research and government institutions, members of the biofuel production chain and representatives of civil society.
This assessment was made by participants of the Aviation Biofuels Conference in Brazil, which opened on September 11 at EMBRAPA’s (Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research) headquarters in Brasilia, with the objective of discussing the technical and financial feasibility of biofuels and the current stage of research that is being conducted in Brazil on biofuels that could possibly replace kerosene in commercial aircraft.
The event’s program included the National Symposium on Aviation Biofuels and the 5th Workshop of the Sustainable Biofuels Project, promoted by FAPESP, Embraer and Boeing, which was held from September 11-14 in Brasilia.
The event is part of a series of eight workshops slated to be held under an agreement signed by FAPESP, Embraer and Boeing in October 2011 with the objective of establishing a biofuel research and development center for commercial aviation in Brazil that would involve the three institutions and be based on the model of FAPESP’s Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (CEPIDs), which are focused on conducting research on the frontiers of knowledge.
The aviation sector, which produces 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, is facing the challenge of reducing carbon dioxide emission by half in 2050 compared with 2005 levels and becoming carbon neutral by 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
As a means of reducing consumption, and ultimately, greenhouse gases, airplane manufacturers have been attempting to increase the operational efficiency of their aircraft through the development of more modern and efficient motors and aerodynamic optimization, utilizing, for example, lighter structures and metal alloys in jet projects.
Nevertheless, with the sharp expansion of air transport and the increase in the aircraft fleet circulating worldwide, these measures have been insufficient.
“All the efforts that we have made toward optimization of consumption and utilization of aircraft will not be sufficient. The only path we should pursue is biofuels,” said Emílio Matsuo, vice-president and chief engineer at Embraer.
Still, according to Matsuo and other representatives of the aviation sector present at the event, the major scientific and technological challenge is developing a biofuel from any biomass produced on a commercial scale that has a competitive cost and can be mixed with conventional aviation kerosene at a 50-50% rate, without the need for modifications to the motors and turbines of the current fleet of aircraft circulating around the globe.
According to sector specialists, although there are biofuels produced abroad based on different types of biomass—which are already certified for aviation use and that have been utilized in test and even commercial flights—they are not being produced on a large scale and are up to 100% more expensive than aviation kerosene.
The German airline Lufthansa, for example, added 50% biokerosene made from jatropha to its standard fuel on its regular flights from Berlin to Frankfurt for six months. However, after operating more than 1,000 flights with the mixture, it halted the initiative due to a lack of the renewable product on the market.
“Through 2011, there had been approximately 200 initiatives focused on the utilization of aviation biofuel, such as experimental and demo flights and projects such as this one involving FAPESP, Boeing and Embraer. This movement is more intense than that observed in other segments of the energy sector, such as wind power, for example,” affirmed Luiz Horta Nogueira, professor at Universidade Federal de Itajubá (UNIFEI) in Minas Gerais.
However, according to Nogueira, what is most surprising about the initiatives to utilize biofuels in global aviation is the fact that the raw materials being utilized are not from Brazil, which is a model country in the field of biofuels.
“It makes no sense for European countries to have airline companies conducting more than 1,400 commercial flights using biofuel prepared in Finland with Asian raw material. Brazil has important leadership and could play an important role in building a sustainable biofuel market,” notes Nogueira.
Diversity of raw materials
According to specialists present at the event, there are numerous raw materials, including oilseeds, fibers and residues, among other things, that have proven promising for biokerosene production.
EMBRAPA, for example, is conducting research on the domestication of the jatropha plant and has begun to study the babassu palm, whose oil is composed of acids with the ideal carbon chain for developing an aviation biofuel.
According to researchers in the area, the combinations of the technologies that can be used for biofuel production and the many possible raw materials form a multitude of technological pathways that make it very difficult to make decisions on which path should be followed.
“We will have to develop a methodology that indicates the strengths of each aviation biofuel candidate and the existing gaps in terms of research to improve bioactive production rather than simply trying to determine the best alternatives for developing a biofuel for aviation,” says Luís Augusto Barbosa Cortez, adjunct coordinator of Special Programs at FAPESP and one of the coordinators of the project.
According to the researcher, the new industry that should emerge in Brazil that will be focused on replacing fossil fuel-based kerosene in aviation will be similar to but will have no direct relationship with the sugarcane-ethanol and biodiesel industries already present in Brazil.
“We are building a new industry in Brazil that involves technologies that the country has mastered and others that still present enormous research challenges that justify FAPESP’s involvement in a decisive manner in this project,” he affirmed.
FAPESP President, Celso Lafer, stressed that FAPESP has been concerned with and dedicated itself to supporting research programs that make the development of renewable energy feasible.
One example of this institution’s concern with this issue, according to Lafer, is the creation of the FAPESP Program for Bioenergy Research (BIOEN), which brings together more than 300 Brazilian scientists, the majority of whom work in universities and research institutions in São Paulo State, in addition to 60 researchers from several other countries, and in which the Embraer and Boeing agreement plays an integral role.
“Because of FAPESP’s focus on renewable energy, we had the immense satisfaction of creating a mechanism of cooperation and understanding with Boeing and Embraer that is focused on biofuels, which represents an important horizon for our country and the future of renewable energy,” says Lafer.
Al Bryant, vice president of Boeing Research and Technology, believes the creation of a research and development center represents a unique opportunity for the country.
“Brazil could innovate not only regionally but also on a global scale, taking a position of leadership in biofuels for aviation and ensuring this position for generations,” he remarks.