Australian study identifies research priorities for cheaper aviation biofuel

23 May 2013
By Lorna Sharpe
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Australian research into the viability of aviation biofuels has come up with benchmark oil prices at which various biofuels would be economically competitive using current technology. The work will help identify research areas that would have the greatest impact in reducing the price.

The results are the culmination of almost three years of work by The University of Queensland, James Cook University, The Boeing Company, Virgin Australia, Mackay Sugar and IOR Energy.

Researchers at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, based at The University of Queensland, looked at the engineering and associated financial viability of biofuel production.

The work involved detailed techno-economic modelling of the processes to convert three feedstocks - sucrose from sugar cane, microalgae and oily seeds from a tree called Pongamia - to produce a minimum selling price for aviation biofuel.

The results showed that using current proven technologies, the biofuels would be economically competitive with crude oil at a price per barrel of $301 (sugarcane), $374 (Pongamia seeds) and $1,343 (microalgae).

While the research showed biofuel processes still require research and innovation to become economically viable for use in jets compared to existing fuels, the aim was to identify research priorities that will have the largest impact on lowering the price. These priorities include delivering higher fermentation yields in the sucrose process, producing Pongamia seeds with a higher oil content and developing cheaper and more effective microalgae harvesting technologies.

Market developments would also help, such as good access to animal feed markets, since the three routes could all produce high-protein meal as a by-product.

The results showed that implementing these technological improvements could lower the price to $168 (sugarcane), $255 (Pongamia seeds) and $385 (algae).

A major biofuel research effort is underway around the world that could also yield additional breakthroughs to further lower the costs.

Michael Edwards, general manager of Boeing Research & Technology-Australia, said Boeing has a global commitment to supporting research into sustainable aviation biofuels. “We've proven that aircraft can fly on biofuels. The next step is establishing the commercial and sustainable biofuels industries needed to take biofuels flights from demonstration to reality.”

Unlike ground transport, where electric or hydrogen cars may provide an alternative, aviation depends on liquid fuels with high energy content.

The study was part of the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative (QSAFI). The results have been published in the international journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining and were presented this week at the Boeing-hosted Aero Environment Summit in Sydney.

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