Industry backs algae project for aviation biofuel

Airbus, Rolls-Royce and other leading aviation businesses are backing a Cranfield University project to produce jet fuel from marine algae.

The Sustainable Use of Renewable Fuels (SURF) consortium comprises Airbus, British Airways, Rolls-Royce, Finnair, Gatwick Airport, IATA and Cranfield University.

The consortium will take a structured approach to addressing five major considerations for the successful use of fuels from a renewable source like microalgae. These will include; environmental impact, processing, capacity and distribution, commercial and regulation. Specific studies will look at future sustainability modelling and environmental lifecycle assessment.

Cranfield is already working on a project called Sea Green, with a pilot facility on campus growing and processing algae for biofuels. SURF will serve as an advisory group to Sea Green, supporting the definition, objectives and outcomes of this project.

The eventual aim is for Sea Green to be an ocean-based facility producing commercial quantities of biomass sustainably for conversion to biofuel. It will be designed to use the expanse of the world’s near-shore waters to grow microalgae at an accelerated rate and capture CO2 from the atmosphere and seas at the same time. The idea is to do this in an environmentally friendly, sustainable facility with a negative carbon mechanism (meaning that net carbon is taken out of the atmosphere) that does not compete with agricultural land, does not require fresh water, does not result in deforestation and does not damage the environment.

It is envisaged that the first commercial quantities of products from Sea Green will become available within three years.

Professor Feargal Brennan, head of Cranfield University’s Department of Offshore, Process and Energy Engineering, said: “Many biofuels compete with agricultural land and fresh water, which results in the price of food being pushed up. This project and consortium aim to see how algae could benefit the aviation industry. It will look at ways to grow and harvest naturally-occurring species of algae in large volumes and to process these into fuel.

"Few replacement options to kerosene for fuelling commercial aircraft have been identified but jet fuel produced from algae produced in this way could be a major breakthrough.”

Paul Nash, Airbus head of new energies, said the company sees algae as one of the most promising and sustainable solutions for commercial quantities of biofuels. Airbus is following a three-pronged environmental strategy based on alternative fuels, air traffic management and the latest aircraft technology.

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