AVweb

« Back to Full Story

Aviation Biofuels: Real or Green Fantasy?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A
Sometimes, the more you learn about a thing, the more information you gather and the more people you talk to about a specific topic, the harder it is judge. That's definitely the case with aviation biofuels which are, in a sense, leading the charge towards a greener, bio-based fuel economy. I have pored over dozens of reports, research presentations, studies and news articles on this topic and conducted a number of interviews. The impression I get is of an industry operating on an underlying assumption that biofuels are an inevitability. The typical headline reports on some new development or milestone that's been achieved, but down in the body of the story, you rarely see the offsetting qualifier noting that the entire edifice isn't out of the R&D phase yet. There's a strong tendency to green wash everything, including editorial coverage. When you ask, "how much," people stop talking. There are aspects of this story that I find encouraging and some that I find worrisome. Specifically, the sheer amount of research work in this area is staggering. There are probably dozens of processes using just as many bio feedstocks and the fact that the Navy and Air Force are throwing money at the problem will have inevitable spinoffs for the commercial side. The fuels themselves—specifically hydrotreated renewable jet—seem to perform well, so well in fact that the Navy is satisfied that the principle part of its testing is done. It wants to run all of its airplanes and ships on a 50/50 blend of petroleum by 2020, an ambitious timeline. On the piston side, Swift fuel continues its research. Although Swift was initially pitched as a biofuel, I now believe that's a misnomer. It can be a biofuel, if its acetone-based feedstock is derived from biomass. But in my view, the reality is more agnostic than that. Swift's work has concentrated on the downstream side—how to turn acetone into high-octane binary fuel—not the upstream side, which is making the acetone from biomass in the first place. Right now, Swift's largest challenge is finding cheap acetone, regardless of its source. What makes me skeptical of green hysteria is how news stories tend to ignore how or even if biofuels fit into the larger trends of energy development and history. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman is a high-profile cheerleader for everything green, but I wonder if he's ever applied a calculator to some of the claims advanced by the green fuels industry, specifically, the overarching consideration of energy density and, related to that, capital density. Density in this context isn't BTUs per gallon—the alternative aviation fuels prove they perform well—but how much fuel you can produce from a given amount of land, a single well, a delivery system or dollars invested in infrastructure. In their engaging essay on the history of energy evolution, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste and Why Will Never Run Out of Energy, authors Peter Huber and Mark Mills note that alternative energy sources—solar, wind and biomass—are pushing against powerful historical trends. Pound for pound, wood as a fuel contained more energy than the human muscle-based carbohydrate economy it displaced; coal contained twice again as much; oil raises the ante twice again and nuclear sources many times more. In this context, biofuels are less dense and may require more resources—money—to produce. Less energy density at a higher cost doesn't sound like the roadmap to success for the reality is that each new evolution of energy generation has delivered multiples of output while requiring the same or less input--human effort, capital, land and so on. Electricity has never been cheaper than it is now and we've never used more of it. Gasoline prices have been flat or declining against inflation and it has never been cheaper to travel from point A to point B. It's too soon to draw any conclusion on where biofuels fit. But just putting simple numbers together gives pause. One biofuel expert told me that a 65-million gallon a year capacity biofuel plant would require biomass equivalent of 15 football fields a day of some sort of energy crop. And it will take many dozens if not hundreds of such plants to make a meaningful dent in U.S. energy consumption. (The U.S. uses about 380 million gallons of motor fuel per day.) Ignoring the challenges of scaling up the processes that convert biomass to sugars and then sugars to fuel, of the effect of weather and drought on crop yields, of finding the appropriate land, when you think about just harvesting and transporting all that biomass, you naturally have to ask: Are you sure this can work? The answer continues to be: We're not sure yet. Think about that when reading rosy stories about biofuels. In the U.S., we have elegantly demonstrated how not to do biofuels in the form of the ethanol industry. Ethanol is a lousy fuel, its production competes with food crops, customers don't like it and will like it even less when the EPA shoves E15 down the motoring public's filler nozzle. For aviation interests, ethanol has been a disaster because it eliminates the option of using premium fuel for aircraft engines. But the real obscenity is that the industry floats along on government subsidies and mandates. It's as if a company had a crappy product but convinced the government to make you buy it and then got tax breaks after the sale. If the advanced biofuel industry is to succeed, we'll need to avoid making that mistake again. So in order not to run afoul of Huber and Mills' powerful historical trends, advanced biofuels will at least have to be equivalent in cost to petroleum based fuels and if they are to be the paradigm shift some people imagine, they'll need to be cheaper. Good luck. Maybe the advent of peak oil will change the equation. Or maybe they're not a paradigm shift at all, but merely part a liquid fuel mix that includes oil for the foreseeable future. Although I'm skeptical, I'm encouraged by the work going on in the biofuels industry. Most of it is good science and I see that as positive for its own sake. It's bound to yield useful advances, even if replacing oil isn't one of them.

Related Content:
For two related podcasts on this topic, see:

Comments (57)

I'm glad you mentioned energy density, not many people understand that aspect when they started discussing new fuel sources. But what's troubling is that no alternative or next-gen (or whatever adjective) fuel source we're looking at really has the energy density to compete with oil until you start looking at far-off sources like fusion. Even hydrogen has less energy per volume than gasoline. This has lead me to believe that nothing is really going to flat out replace current fuel for the aviation industry for quite a long time. I predict we'll still be using a good amount of oil based fuel until electric engines catch up to jet engines. The military may be able to do their 50/50 mixture, or even 100% bio, but I just don't see the production being scalable to fit the scale of commercial aviation.

However, just because you need a football field worth of biomass doesn't mean it needs to be flat. You could fit 5 or 10 towers with the same surface area on that field and grow them that way. Depending on the crop, it may grow even better like this.

Posted by: Corey Phelps | January 16, 2011 7:00 PM    Report this comment

"biofuels" are a hoax since there is plenty of oil for the next 300 years. So called green fuels are an ecological disaster just because of the acreage it destroys and that it takes more energy to create green fuels than the final product creates. All I can tell for sure is that it costs a lot and is worse for the environment (a lose-lose).

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 16, 2011 8:23 PM    Report this comment

Corey, I'm with you on the battery technology. And a year ago, I wouldn't have believed that electric aircraft were even a remote possibility. When I traded in my 2 year old laptop on a new one, I was absolutely blown away at the difference in battery life (2-3 hours on a good day compared to 8 hours with my new macbook) Electric storage technology is growing in leaps and bounds - unfortunately biofuels don't seem to have improved much in the last 30 years - remember gasohol?

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 16, 2011 8:39 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli said: "Maybe the advent of peak oil will change the equation".

Check the production data, global oil production has not increased since 2006. We have been at a flat plateau-style peak for five years. The only thing that is increasing is global oil demand.

Posted by: Adam Hunt | January 17, 2011 7:43 AM    Report this comment

I think the focus on being "Green" isn't correct. Perhaps the military is taking seriously the fact that there is a limited supply of inexpensive petroleum available, but a rapidly growing demand. Not making any contingency plans to solve a long-term energy supply problem would be a dereliction of duty. People also seem to focus on electricity when speaking of alternative energy, but the nearer term problem is liquid fuels for transportation. If we must pay extremely high (>$8/gal) costs for gas or diesel, then the costs of our suburban lifestyle will dramatically increase. Without electric trains or decent public transportation as backup, the loss of cheap oil represents an economic and security threat. It only makes sense that someone (the military?) start making other plans and doing the research to help ease the transition to a high-cost petroleum world. (note that I said expensive oil, not zero oil - there's a big difference) We can still make electricity for years, but cheap oil will be difficult to do without. So I think they are preparing for that eventuality rather than worrying about being "Green".

Posted by: Scott Thomason | January 17, 2011 7:55 AM    Report this comment

It is often said that if the research funds spent between 1945 and 2005 on nuclear energy had gone to alternative sources, nuclear energy would not be the practical only alternative to fossil fuels. There is now a bit more money for alternatives, although still a tiny fraction of that spent on nuclear. My money is on things like biodiesel from algae in five to 10 years time. It has the potential to be grown in industrial plants looking not unlike oil refineries and to produce more fuel quicker than squeezing seeds will ever do. Of course it will require subsidies for the research (like nuclear or coal for that matter) and someone will have to invest hundreds of millions in the first plant which might or might not work, and will probably not ever make a profit. But then again, have you seen the price of a barrel of crude lately?

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | January 17, 2011 8:25 AM    Report this comment

green fuel is mostly political hype. The military is moving there because they are politically controlled. Solar and wind are not cost effective today, the only reason they exist is due to subsidies(money taken from us). Biofuel at its root is an attempt to take our economy down to third world levels. Don't let anyone fool you, oil is cheap and plentiful. If it ever really get expensive, we will adapt. But i doubt biofuel will ever be the answer.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | January 17, 2011 8:28 AM    Report this comment

Nice article. I think part of the push factor is here but its more just the forward thinkers and dreamers and not the serious money at this stage. Despite the nay-sayers, I think that the pull factor for biofuels will come from this carbon taxing/trading we keep hearing about because that will start the process of factoring in the pollution associated with digging up carbon and putting it in the sky. That will annoy some people no end but it will get all of us thinking differently about carbon fuels. That's going to take a decade or more though but I am sure that eventually burning petrol will seem as crazy as smoking. Re - your main point - My understanding is that there is not enough arable land on the planet to provide the necessary biomass for renewable fuel production. I am sure we could make much better use of the land but even so. To my mind that means simply finding ways to use otherwise useless land or the sea, but then that pushes this stuff further out into the future, making it easier to characterise as pie in the sky. Moving away from petroleum is a massive change and could mean writing off large parts of our infrastructure, which in many cases still needs to be paid off. I agree that the trick is to make non-polluting fuels or power systems cheaper than the petroleum based alternative and I am sure that's possible.

Posted by: john hogan | January 17, 2011 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Interesting that conservation of existing resources never seems to be part of the equation. Cash for clunkers was a feeble attempt that cost way more than it saved. Sadly, the planets endless wars account for untold billions of gallons destroyed or used in the conduct of same. Did I mention the huge waste of resources hauling one or two people around in BIG suv's and monster RV's? Green fuels are a poor alternative. I have been able to find pure gas in some places, and milage jumps up 4 or 5 mls per gal. and of course it is common knowledge that it takes more energy to produce 10% corn squeezin gas than it saves. I am lucky to have pure 91 octane gas for my plane here at FYV, and I usually fly economy cruise.

Posted by: charles heathco | January 17, 2011 11:00 AM    Report this comment

Excellent discussion on energy density, Paul. Sunlight and geologic activity (burial, compaction and heating) have had millions of years to densify (in more ways than one) petroleum, which is in all actuality a non-synthetic biofuel.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | January 17, 2011 3:56 PM    Report this comment

Here's my view, and I think I have a history of pessimism in these posts. First of, peak oil is here. That's why prices are rising and production is flat. While some may assert "there is enough oil for the next 300 years", the folks that have the stuff, and sell it, don't agree. By itself, rising prices and flat production defines peak oil, ipso facto. The disturbing thing to me is the military's intense interest. They can't afford to run out, and if actions speak louder than words, they are acting as if they know there is no more to go and get, but will have to make it instead. That is scary, especially for us that will get the leftover liquid fuels at premium prices. Alternative? Batteries just store energy, and you have to get that somewhere else. Maybe nuclear power electricity? Hydrogen from solar? Only if you combine it with CO2 to re-make hydrocarbons (like acetone, for Swift) but no one does that yet, or knows how to econimically. Paul is right that the land area equation doesn't make enough fuel for us. The scary thing is it barely could accomodate the military, and no one else. For anything.

Posted by: Tom Lubben | January 17, 2011 3:57 PM    Report this comment

Peak oil is always a hot button discussion point in the energy business. You're right that production has flattened, but part of that is due to over capacity that demand is just catching up to.

Everyone has a different opinion on peak oil and the only sure thing is that people who have predicted it have been consistently wrong. The first ethanol for fuel project dates to the 1920s, when Charles Kettering set out develop alcohol fuels because Ford believed most of the oil was gone.

My own view is that rising prices will establish a new peak in this decade, but that the true peak isn't far ahead. To inform your thinking on this, I can suggest three sources: One is Daniel Yergin's The Prize, a must-have for any serious student of this subject.

Second, for a darker view, see Matthew Simmons', Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. He points out that every major field in the history of oil production has declined and tapped, there's no reason to believe Ghawar, Safaniya and Berri, some of the biggest Saudi fields won't do the same. The question is: when?

Last, Vaclav Smil's Energy at the Crossroads puts all of this in global and historical perspective. It's a serious academic tome, but really a fascinating read. (At least to me.)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 17, 2011 3:59 PM    Report this comment

Paul: It is good to see you have done the background reading, many journalists haven't! Simmons book is good, if six years old now. Jeff Rubin's "Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization" is also good and fairly optimistic compared to some on the subject.

While it is true that the lack of global production increase in 2008-2010 was probably dictated by lack of demand and low prices (when you have an of-shore well in 5000 feet of water and 20,000 of rock after that, $60 per barrel is a non-starter for production, the basic cost is $160/bbl) but production also did not increase during 2006-2008 when the shortage of available oil drove prices to record highs and sent George W to ask the Saudis nicely to open up the taps to avoid crashing the global economy. But the taps were wide open in early 2008 and demand outstripped it, forcing prices up. The 2008-10 recession was an oil recession and the next one will be as well.

Posted by: Adam Hunt | January 17, 2011 5:04 PM    Report this comment

A few years ago I saw a presentation by a guy who spent 40 years in the oil business. He was pitching an idea to obtain oil from the oil shale located in the 4 corner states. He says there are billions of barrels located right here in the USA. His idea is to use small nuclear power plants (like the ones used in nuclear submarines) to pump high pressure steam down into the earth and pump out the oil. He said he can get oil out for about $50 / barrel.

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | January 17, 2011 9:25 PM    Report this comment

One other thing, I wrote to Marathon oil asking where I could find alcohol free gas. They replied that they would be happy to produce and sell alcohol free premium fuel federal regulations prevent them doing so. Let's put the blame where is belongs. It's the EPA and politicians that causing the problem. We need to tell all of our legislatures we hate alcohol fuel and stop it now. This would provide the feed stock for a suitable lead free avgas.

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | January 17, 2011 9:33 PM    Report this comment

Paul: Very good analysis as to biomass. But you did not consider algae based fuels. From my investigation, algae holds more possibility than biomass which for many reasons seems only a slightly bit better than corn based alcohol fuels.

Posted by: Ed Livermore | January 17, 2011 10:12 PM    Report this comment

Seems to me that the fuel people are barking up the wrong tree. There exists a fuel that is plentiful, cheaper than Avgas, has more energy density per gallon, adding a turbocharger doesn't increase fuel consumption but does increase power output. It's even available at almost every airport in the world. There are 2 significant disadvantages: 1. there's only a limited number of piston engines available that will burn this fuel. 2. Most folk aren't willing to think far enough outside the box to switch. The solution as I see it, is for engine manufacturers to develop suitable engine's in a compatible power range to the current engine inventory, then when it's time for major engine work, replace the avgas-burner with with a turbocharged, compression-ignition, JetA burning piston engine. Just call it a Diesel. ANy other issues involved likely are no worse (just different) than those we currently deal with now.

Posted by: chuck harral | January 18, 2011 12:58 AM    Report this comment

The algae projects look promising--Exxon has about $300M invested, I'm told. But the technology with regard to scaling is not highly developed enough to judge it. But then that applies to all of these feedstocks.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 18, 2011 5:49 AM    Report this comment

"algae projects look promising"

I'm old enough to remember the 1970's. Lots of hair brained ideas to make fuel from all sorts of things. It all comes back to VOLUME and you simply cannot make enough biofuel fast enough to meet demand. The only way to meet demand for carbon based fuels is to stat with huge deposits of carbon based raw material. Oil, Gas, Coal is the only way to meet demand. Waiting for algae or the grass to grow to make enough fuel for a modern world is not so much a "fantasy" as an intentional misrepresentation of reality.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2011 7:38 AM    Report this comment

I have very little faith in political solutions to this problem. The decades-long absurdity that is our ethanol policy is the best example. Only very recently has it become clear to enough people that it's a bad fuel with economic and environmental repercussions that are worse than those it was meant to solve. The only reason that it's stuck around so long is because it developed a feedback loop of subsidies and politics that is almost impossible to break.

As Paul mentioned, the biggest problem with Tom Friedman and most of the "anything green" crowd is that they never consider cost or efficiency. For most, it's too much trouble (or just not fun) to think that hard about it. And for others, like with ethanol, you have to wonder if there is some other form of profit for them in what is ultimately a bad deal for the consumer.

Posted by: John McGrew | January 18, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

Good article. Green ideology results in a more expensive, more difficult and much more restrictive world. Green minded people question human activities at all. For them, flying and especially private flying / general aviation is a completly unnessessary human activity what they believe only destroys nature. Green is the absolute enemy of all flying activities. That has to be understood at first.

The next is that green ideology is spreading all over the world. The Europeans educate their kids in school that all what is green is good and all other is the “devil”. And this may start in the U.S. as well. That means we have to cope with a somewhat more green world in the future.

Flying for the ordinary people with small planes is one of the first what “greens” will destroy when they can. With the need of special fuels for small airplanes they have a point where they can start. And they do. Therefore we need airplanes which can use auto fuels or diesel/kerosene. Then we have fuels for small airplanes as long as cars are in the streets and as long as airliners are flying.

When it comes to energy/weight ratio gas is better than cerosin. Combine this with the heavier diesel engines and you realise that gas engines make sence for small airplanes. But auto gas contains ethanol. And more in the future. This is a worldwide political process and can not be stopped any more.

It would be wise to have ehtanol ready gas engines or diesel/kerosene engines in new airplanes.

Posted by: Dietrich Fecht | January 18, 2011 9:47 AM    Report this comment

I've been interested in the subject of alternative fuels for 30-some years, and I'd like to write first, on the matter of ethanol. I believe ethanol became the fuel extender of choice not so much because our legislators were corrupted by agricultural interests, but because 1) ethanol has a high antiknock ("octane") rating, better than 100, 2) ethanol has somewhat higher energy content than methanol, which has also been extensively studied as a fuel in itself and gasoline additive, and 3) unlike methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), doesn't foul water supplies, and 4) doesn't create vapor pressure or phase separation problems as a gasoline additive to as great an extent as methanol.

EAA should grant an award to whomever does the best job of modifying a piston airplane, i.e. one of Mr. Van Gunsven's RV's and its engine, to operate on E-85 without problems other than, unfortunately, reduced range.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 18, 2011 9:59 AM    Report this comment

Actually, ethanol owes its recent history to a combination of politics and science. It's anti-knock capabilities were not much of a factor. During the Nixon administration, SecAg Earl Butz pushed for higher corn output which, predictably, crumped prices, so corn price supports were increased.

Co-incidentally, the technology for mass production of ethanol was improved during that period and with an excess of price-supported corn, making ethanol was a perfect match. The 1973 oil embargo gave birth to the notion of energy independence and the timing couldn't have been more perfect, thus was born the modern ethanol industry. Later, Ronald Reagan signed loan guarantees to the developing industry and later than that came tax subsidies and eventually mandates for ethanol.

The MTBE phaseout and ethanol as a replacement oxygenate came much later, like about 2000 or after. That did boost consumption, but the roots of ethanol are almost purely political, not based in any reasonable science or economics.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 18, 2011 10:23 AM    Report this comment

We have lots of domestic natural gas. Jet, diesel and any other "distillate" fuel oil, can be made from natural gas in what is known today as Gas-To-Liquids. It is a very simple process, known since the 1920's. For some reason (farm lobby) it gets virtually no attention. The only "catch" is that it probably needs crude oil to stay above $60 a barrel permanently to be competitive, with no government subsidy or mandate.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | January 18, 2011 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Here's one that all the biofuel naysayers seem to always leave out: Paul even mentions it in his article,"Ethanol... its production competes with food crops,..." fact of the matter is that something like 90% of the corn crop is grown to feed CATTLE, PIGS, etc. Doesn't it make sense to get the ethanol production from this "Feed" supply before it is used by the Feed industry. The byproduct - Dried Distilers grains are now used as a cheaper source of feed.... thus making that meat product picked up at the grocery store CHEAPER!

Posted by: Dennis Weatherald | January 18, 2011 1:18 PM    Report this comment

Dennis, I'm a biofuel naysayer for the simple fact that creating it will always be slow, inefficient, costly, and the end result is a small amount of expensive weak fuel. It's not a fuel for economic growth.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2011 2:07 PM    Report this comment

Dennis - tell that to all the poor Mexicans that rioted over corn prices a few years ago. The ethanol mandates caused so much corn to be diverted to that process that price of the corn meal they needed to make their tortillas (a staple of their diet) skyrocketed to the point that they couldn't afford to buy enough to feed themselves.

RE: peak oil - Every time people start talking about that, seemingly inevitably some very large discovery of a new oil field is announced, or some new technology that allows more oil to be extracted from wells previously thought to be tapped out comes along. Even at current levels of known recoverable oil and technology there's many, many lifetimes worth of oil. And I'd bet that if the USA opened up energy exploration like we could if we really wanted to we'd find probably enough for another couple centuries at the least. Problem is that a LOT of the oil we already know about is locked up due to politics, and given that almost nobody is willing to spend money to find additional sources.

Bottom line is that if/when peak oil actually materializes the price of oil will rise until suitable alternatives are found and implemented. There's no real need to get all Chicken-Little about it in the mean time.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | January 18, 2011 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Reading the dueling conspiracy theories is always entertaining. Either its a Green/Government conspiracy to keep the remaining centuries of existing cheap oil away from a deserving population, or its the oil companies or the Saudis creating scarcity to drive up prices.

There is a reason why BP was drilling miles below the ocean to find oil - because all the easy stuff on land is gone. Yes, maybe there is some in ANWR (estimates are about a decades worth, last time I read anything) but really, how far will that get us? Its reasonable to assume that the easy stuff is mostly gone, and once Iraq is tapped effciently that may be the last big reserves when the Saudi fields begin their inevitable decline someday (soon-ish?).

Higher prices will bring back online abandoned fields, but the steady use of these fields won't bring the prices down. I still bet the Pentagon thinks this is likely and is hedging its bets on energy supplies with a biofuel program. It likely won't supply the vast domestic vehicle fleet, but that's not the point for them.

Posted by: Scott Thomason | January 18, 2011 4:03 PM    Report this comment

I wasn't going to comment on the "quality" of the fuel... but i would like to point out that Brazil it totally ethanol, and yes that means the GA airplanes too! If its so bad and so small why would they totally remove fosil fuels? I'd promote the idea that it was for energy independance and job creation.

Andew so sorry the Mexicans have trouble with the price but that still doesn't negate the fact that animals eat FEED (not to be confused with edible corn) in a ration. They will be eating that same amount of feed reguardless of the price or where it comes from! There is a big difference and believe me you wouldn't ever want a second cob of FEED corn at the dinner table. Maybe the price spiked because of speculators and gov't subsidies?

Posted by: Dennis Weatherald | January 18, 2011 4:47 PM    Report this comment

Corn, whether for animal feed, tortillas, or fuel all exists on a global market. When there's a lot more demand for it for fuel, and the price goes up, guess what - the farmers plant corn suitable for fuels rather than for cattle feed or tortillas (and only so much of the waste from fuel corn is useable for cattle feed). Which causes the supply of those to drop. Which does what to the price? Oh yeah, it makes it go up.

"so sorry the Mexicans have trouble with the price but that still doesn't negate the fact that animals eat FEED (not to be confused with edible corn) in a ration. They will be eating that same amount of feed reguardless of the price or where it comes from! "

And I think you've rather elegantly negated your own arguement that corn-fuel reduces the price of beef.

Oh, and Brazil has never been at mandatory E100, never mind for decades. They've ramped up to E25 to date. Even with as much as its been pushed by their government, only ~40% of their vehicles can even run on anything over E25. And they still only get price partity (which requires ethanol to be at least 30% cheaper due to lower mpg) by taxing ethanol at 1/3 the rate of gasoline.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | January 18, 2011 5:38 PM    Report this comment

WIth regard to: "Every time people start talking about that, seemingly inevitably some very large discovery of a new oil field is announced" This is just no true if you look at how big that is. The "huge" reserves found under the Gulf of Mexico is about 6 month's supply. And that is the biggest is a while. Makes NO difference in the big picture is peak oil is delayed 6 months. And that's all these "huge" discoveries are. A drop in the bucket. Regardless of the picture about corn and ethanol, or new extractions, or anything else, the fact remains that the military- not known for being susceptible to 'Green Idealogy', is putting a lot of effort into making sure they have theirs. They have the real oil production forecasts that we may not, they have the resources, and look at their actions. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions tell the rest of us that the days of cheap and available oil are near an end. The military has not done this before - but now they know it is necessary. Scary.

Posted by: Tom Lubben | January 18, 2011 8:08 PM    Report this comment

There is one biobased component which is very suitable for AVGAS and that is ETBE. ETBE is an ether made of ethanol and as such does not attract water, has excellent storage capability, very high octane numbers and in blending concentrations of 30 % does not affect range or fuel consumption. Cessna has published a 400 pages thick report stating ETBE is the fuel component of choice for a high octane unleaded AVGAS.

Posted by: Lars Hjelmberg Hjelmco Oil Sweden | January 19, 2011 2:05 AM    Report this comment

I guess 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is minor then? Wonder why it's named the Leviathan field.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/world/middleeast/31leviathan.html

And that's just the initial figure. Those are almost always very conservative.

That's the most recent announcement, but I can recall many more over the last 10 years that cumulativly have added (a guess based on memory) 50 years or more to the known, recoverable, supply.

Heh. Here's another one, and quite a bit closer to home. Be nice if it were politically possible to actually drill that field.

http://www.businessinsider.com/oil-discovery-under-shallow-gulf-waters-estimated-to-be-biggest-find-in-decades-2010-1

Hey, if peak oil is really here (and even if it is we won't really know for certain for many years) then I agree, we're in for a lot of tough times. But I still don't think bio-fuels are the best answer overall. In some limited applications, perhaps.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | January 19, 2011 2:28 AM    Report this comment

Paul: to your book list, add John Hofmeister's "Why Americans hate oil companies." Excellent read and hot off the presses. It contains a novel, maybe radical, way to solve the political and legal impass that today thwarts energy development in America.

Posted by: Ed Livermore | January 19, 2011 6:24 AM    Report this comment

Is it just me or does this remind anyone else of late WWII German attempts at making fuel from anything. Is it REALLY that desperate that U.S. Military is worried about oil reserves on the home front that it will spend whatever it costs per gallon for alternatives? Somehow I don't see all this as green energy so much as raising the white flag kind of energy.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 19, 2011 7:09 AM    Report this comment

>There is one biobased component which is >very suitable for AVGAS and that is ETBE. Thanks Lars for mentioning ETBE; you educated a lot of people including me. Problem with ETBE is you need ethanol, and where are you going to get it from? Years ago, a lot of people were talking up methanol as the fuel of the future. The nice thing about methanol is, you can create it with nearly 100% specificity from carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and in turn you can get that from natural gas or anything that burns (coal, wood). But methanol is just miserable as an automotive fuel, and worse than that as an aircraft fuel. What I would like to see is for catalysts to be developed for converting carbon monoxide and hydrogen to alcohol mixtures, i.e. methanol, ethanol, propanol and butanol. Such a mixture would be good automotive fuel and might also be the basis for an acceptable piston-engine aircraft fuel.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 19, 2011 7:09 AM    Report this comment

Owing to the problem of devising 100% lead-free drop-in substitutes for 100LL, here is another idea that will reduce the need for lead in aviation fuel, that I will now describe: Frank Robinson more than earned an honorable retirement when the R66 light turbine helicopter was certified by the FAA. As part of the R66 development effort, a fine 300 shp turbine engine, the Rolls-Royce RR300, came into being. So my idea is: Whoever does the best job of mating the RR300 to a suitable fixed-wing airplane, perhaps an old Mooney single engine piston retractible, a Cirrus SR22 or whatever, should receive a special award at the 2012 Oshkosh AirVenture. Turbines have been criticised for sucking too much fuel. But if future piston aircraft are to be restricted to 94UL or if 100 octane lead-free avgas comes with a very high cost per gallon, the economic difference between turbine and piston power becomes narrower.

As for biomass: Since turbine and Diesel engines don't care about octane, the syntetic fuels chemist has more flexibility in devising processes to turn all kinds of biomass and waste matter (waste grease from restaurants, cow leavings on dairy farms, etc) into fuels suitable for said applications.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 19, 2011 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Ed, thanks. As noted in the podcast, got Hofmeister's book on my Kindle.

Since turbine and Diesel engines don't care about octane<<

Well, hold on. Brayton cycle engines don't care much about cetane, but Jet-A burning piston engines definitely do. This is a potential problem for biofuel blends, because the ASTM standards don't specify minimum cetane.

Biofuels tend to have high cetane, but the specs don't require it. That will have to be tended to. Cetanes in the mid 40s or higher seem to be acceptable. Biofuels are running in the 50s and a little higher, I'm told.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 19, 2011 7:59 AM    Report this comment

Why are we worried about whether biofuels can *replace* oil? Seems to me that the last oil price spike had a lot more to do with supply being tight relative to demand, and that just a little more supply would help relieve the pricing pressure. So biofuels strike me as more of a useful way to supplement our fuel supply than replace it. Demand growth continues as well, we need the supply anyway. Why view it as either/or?

Posted by: Jon Carlson | January 19, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Jon, because it's a market. Why would anyone make an unprofitable fuel(biofuel) just to help lower the cost of a competing product(oil)? It's either/or because no one would even buy biofuel as long as gasoline at the same pump is $1/gal cheaper.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 19, 2011 1:51 PM    Report this comment

In response to Mark's comment- yeah, it does remind me of Germany trying to make fuel out of anything, and it does sound incredibly desperate that the military is so interested. "Green" is nice window dressing for "desperate"- it helps to keep us unsuspecting and quiet. There was an interesting article in Science (AAAS journal, highly respected and refereed)about a year ago about the efficiencies of liquid fuel production from biomas. Ethanol was low- about 20%, I recall. A lot of this was due to the fact that to get to EtOH, you break a lot of bonds that in a higher-length molecule, you can recover the energy from in the engine. More is lost as metabolic waste from the organism that ferments it. More is lost in transport to and from the site. So only about 20% is left after all this (and about a third actually propels the vehicle. The rest is lost as heat) Burning the biomass to create electricity is about 2-3X more efficient, even counting transmission and battery charging losses for an electric vehicle. The numbers are compelling. But importantly for us, liquid fuel to power aircraft is an energy/resource hog. Its days for general use are numbered, and the military wants to be sure they have their. Nothing "Green" about it except that when the oil is gone, only biomass is left, and they need/want it. The price will go high enough soon enough to make it worthwhile. All too soon for my son to do much flying, unfortunately.

Posted by: Tom Lubben | January 19, 2011 11:08 PM    Report this comment

Alex - Ethanol is made in Sweden since early 1900 from wood in combination with papermills. We have one plant still in operation out of a total of 36 built (site Ornskoldsvik Sweden) which is profitable and puts out 15000 tons each year. Ethanol from these papermill processes helped Sweden to run vehicles during 2 World Wars. ETBE is the oxygenate of choice in Europe but a lot of European ethanol is derived from overproduction of wine -- yes cabernet, chablis and others of less good qualities.

Posted by: Lars Hjelmberg Hjelmco Oil Sweden | January 20, 2011 4:25 AM    Report this comment

Lars - So part of Europe's automotive ethanol demand is met by wineries? I have often myself thought that ethanol from fermenting grapes, should be burned in automotive or aircraft piston engines instead of burning up our livers when consumed as wine.

As for wood as the initial raw material for ethanol production, the matter of breaking down cellulose into simple sugars for subsequent fermentation has been studied here in the USA, by researchers including Professor Bruce Dale at Michigan State University (my younger son's alma mater).

If ETBE doesn't create environmental problems, I'm all in favor of it. As long as there is oil and oil refineries, isobutylene will be available for reaction with ethanol to produce this blending ingredient.

Is Sweden producing any signifigant percentage of its electric power from burning biomass? Here in the USA, half of our electric power comes from burning coal. If buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere is indeed a problem, biomass-to-electricity (and for that matter electric power from nuclear energy) should be pursued, along with biofuels.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 20, 2011 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Alex - the swedish processes of making ethanol from wood residues during sulphite paper production was developed in 1871 by inventor Carl David Ekman. It has the lowest co2 print of all ethanols produced in the world. Yes -- certain years we have tremendous amounts of surplus wine --- and instead of dumping wine so wine prices (for drinking) goes down it all goes to the transportation industry. Isobutulene is widely available as long as I can see. If we get diesel engines in the future for aircraft everything that contains carbon can be made to a slurry and reacted with superheated steam and sim sala bim the hydrogen joins with carbon and you have hydrocarbon in gas which then is reacted with catalysts to get a Fischer - Tropsch paraffine (US patent applied in 1926) which is so close to diesel that just a little processing and then you put it right into your aircraft tank. That process is very profitable if you can use the residues high grade steam to generate electricity and the low grade steam for central heating of homes. Sweden is at the right latitude for such applications. Bioenergy is converted to ruffly 30 % fuel, 30% electricity and 30 % warm water for houses.

Posted by: Lars Hjelmberg Hjelmco Oil Sweden | January 20, 2011 9:18 AM    Report this comment

Dietrich: I think you are over-generalizing. I consider myself a greenie but I believe that horsepower is our friend, particularly when coming out of V8s. I also think we need to massively increase our energy consumption rather than reduce it. I know the sorts of people of which you speak but I also know plenty of petrol-heads who would pay a premium for a fuel that allows them to can enjoy horsepower with a clear conscience. It is the fault of the purveyors of jurrasic juice and the politicians (and countries) they own that such a fuel does not exist.

Posted by: john hogan | January 20, 2011 11:37 PM    Report this comment

Why biofuels? The CAGW-industry (catastrophic man made global warming) promotes the scare, that CO2 destroys our planet and that is the main reason to use biofuels. Fighting against CAGW-scaremongers is fighting for more sensible future.

The greenies are not worried if there is enough conventional fuels in the future. Why should you worry? The supply will never end because the last drop of the crude oil is so expensive that nobody can afford to buy it. In that case free market forces will find the way to keep propellers turning.

Posted by: Unknown | January 21, 2011 4:14 AM    Report this comment

Since an important purpose of biofuels is to reduce dependency on petroleum for whatever reason (foreign policy considerations, global warming, exaustion of the world's oil resources), I'd like to mention another way to accomplish this. In the latest edition (February 2011) of Flying magazine, there's an article on page 50 about an all-electric version of the Cessna 172. It uses lithium-polymer batteries, and a motor up front driving a multi-bladed propeller. Said aircraft will be able to fly for an hour with adequate "fuel" reserve, making it suitable for flight training.

There are problems, notably cost of the batteries (Lithium batteries cost a lot to begin with, and only last for so many charge-discharge cycles) and charge time (Said plane can't fly for over an hour after landing, owing to the need to charge the batteries).

Another problem I see is, this particular design will be too heavy to qualify as a light sport aircraft. So the designers of the electric Cessna 172 should also endeavor to develop an electric Skycatcher too.

Nonetheless, if your electric company generates electric power with a nuclear power plant (or by burning biofuels), then what you have is carbon-free aviation.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 21, 2011 9:22 AM    Report this comment

What we are really talking about is having avgas and jet fuel at rational prices. That is not simply a question of more oil being produced so that we can economically fly airplanes or drive cars.

When I was flying logistics support for the Alaskan North Slope Oil Exploration in 1976/1977, the price of oil was around $14.00 bbl. That field was producing 2 million barrels a day in 1988 and is now down to around 650,000 barrels a day and declining at 3.6% a year. The Alaska Pipeline is corroding and requires some refurbishment and caused oil prices to increase slightly when the pipeline shutdown recently. That may be an illustration of the state of most U.S. existing oil resources.

It is interesting that when I was flying the North Slope, we never worried about using -60 Diesel (evidently about the equivalent of Jet B) that was used for most of the engines on the North Slope, in our Electra’s Turboprop engines. According to most manuals, nominal temperature concerns with Jet A begin at about -35°C.

It would appear that the producers on the North Slope have run out of wells/fields to open and extracting the heavy oil is not an economic proposition. Production in ANWAR doesn’t appear to be likely in the short term, and the pipeline needs some work.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 12:58 PM    Report this comment

No matter how many new fields are “discovered”, the fact of the matter is that most of those fields are known, but that extraction of that particular grade of oil (or gas) was simply not economic or rational. For example, the Canadian Oil Sands (depending upon oil price levels) can require more money to extract than they are worth on the open market (until oil prices get really obscene) and you still have to dispose of the waste sand.

New “sources” of oil and gas out of the ground are not the end of the question. Petroleum oil is a finite resource. The fact that the BP Oil Well that created the largest oil spill in history was a mile down is an indication of exactly how far afield oil exploration has to go to create new domestic sources. Exactly how many wells like that BP well would it take to eliminate the need for the U.S. to import oil from foreign sources? The well is estimated to have leaked somewhere between 53,000 and 57,000 bbl per day into the Gulf of Mexico. While that may not be an accurate predictor of the production of such a well, even at that rate, it would take 109 Deep Water Horizon Wells to eliminate our imports of foreign oil.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:00 PM    Report this comment

While that seems like a large number, remember that not every well drilled results in the kind of gusher that hit the Deepwater Horizon. Some don’t get anything, and no matter how far you drill down, according to some experts, once you get below 16,000 feet into the earth, in most parts of the world, the “oil” is actually gas, because of the temperatures at those depths. With new rules and regulations, exactly what would it cost to extract, transport and market that oil in an environmentally responsible fashion.

If wells like the Deepwater Horizon produce oil at prices in excess of the world market, it is a real easy argument to save the oil in wells like the Deepwater Horizon, and not drill any more, until the oil price justifies the investment.

The U.S. currently uses about 21 million bbl per day. We import around 6 million bbl per day. It should be noted that is probably the greatest drag on our balance of payments. The questions of demand, price and availability are wrapped up in worldwide demand and supply. We currently consume something like 25-28% of the world’s supply of petroleum oil.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:01 PM    Report this comment

As the world continues to grow in population and the Asian Tigers have populations that are improving their standard of living, the demand for petroleum is going to continue to increase as well. It doesn’t take much of a margin for demand to exceed supply for the price of crude oil to spike beyond any economic rational level.

There is little question that as the population of the world continues to increase, (estimate by the U.N. at 7.5 to 10.5 billion by 2050, up from 6.9 today) and if any significant numbers of those people currently or in the future are going to live a decent lifestyle, have jobs that keep them from becoming terrorists, then supplying that population with energy is going to be even more of an economic driver than it is today.

In the U.S. the largest user of energy is the Industrial sector at about 30%, then there is the transportation sector at about 29% which uses almost exclusively petroleum oil. If we hope to keep the price of avgas and jet fuel at reasonable levels, the demand for what we use to fly will have to be in balance with the supply. We have to find a way to produce more domestic oil at rational prices (is that really likely?) or we have to find a way to use something besides petroleum oil to fuel our transport.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:04 PM    Report this comment

If we compare ourselves to the Brazilians, they use about 2.4 million barrels a day, and one of the reasons is that they use sugar cane to produce ethanol. Most light vehicles now run on “flex-fuel” engines that run on 20-25% ethanol. In 2008 ethanol use in the transportation sector was 17.6% ethanol. Brazil is able to produce enough excess oil to export almost 600,000 bbl a day in 2010, and that is slated to increase as exploration and production continue in offshore Brazil.

Repeating the Brazilian success in the use of ethanol is practically impossible. They are growing sugarcane with modern equipment and practices on a huge expanse of arable land that is reasonably well managed and there is more land available for sugarcane production.

So, what are the possible substitutes?

Hydrogen is not practical for aircraft. The tanks that would be required to replicate the existing ranges of most aircraft would double the size of the existing tanks, and such uses would generate significant weight and drag penalties for aircraft.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:05 PM    Report this comment

Solar may become practical for certain uses, but the technology is in its infancy. I suppose that someday we won’t think anything about flying our solar cell powered equivalent Bonanza, Malibu, King Air or Citation westbound at night, that day is somewhere in the distant future. Also, will we still be burning fossil fuels to charge those electrically powered aircraft in that distant future?

Biofuel is the darling, but the United States is not Brazil. It may be the only relatively short term solution(?) to supplementing petroleum oil, but I was shocked a few years ago to read in a respected aviation trade publication that according to the information that was available then, in order to provide the Domestic U.S. Air Carrier Industry with 15% (15%??) of its normal usage of biodiesel/jet fuel, would require a corn field about the size of the State of Florida.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:06 PM    Report this comment

Then there are the electric cars that going to require electrical power plants to produce more energy to charge those batteries. Hydroelectric and nuclear power plants cannot be located just anywhere, nuclear plants require huge amounts of water to cool the plants and seismic concerns will limit where both nuclear and hydroelectric plants can be located.

So, we are still going to be burning gas, coal and oil to run electric cars, and we will still be creating huge piles of coal ash and pumping additional carbon into the atmosphere to fuel electric vehicles. Of course, having a roof covered with solar cells, charging the battery of an electric powered vehicle would be a positive solution, but that isn’t commercially available today and that advance would put a real dent in the parking garage industry.

Of course, if every household had its own solar collector (where that is a practical and economic solution) and sufficient energy storage to “fuel” electric car(s), that would actually make electric cars “green”.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:11 PM    Report this comment

If we can control demand, we can control the price. For the moment, conservation and the introduction of new technologies is the only path to keeping things on an even keel. The developed country that needs the least amount of fossil fuels it must purchase from foreign sources is the country that will have the best chance of maintaining a viable economic life for its citizens.

It will take a huge effort to find those viable alternatives and supplements that will reduce the use of petroleum oil and coal. If we wait too long, the price of a barrel of oil can only increase. At some point, the OPEC and other oil producing nations are going to realize that increasing production isn’t in their own long term best interest. Once that point is reached, production decisions become a matter of concern for every developed country.

If OPEC doesn’t realize it now, they will eventually realize soon that once the oil is gone, their relevance will be about at the equivalent of the nearly failed state of Yemen. When they eventually realize that if they keep the supply just slightly below the level of demand, they can make economic production last longer and generate more money over a longer period of time. We better have our substitutes and alternatives figured out by that time, or we are going to be parking our aircraft and making do with trains and bicycles.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | January 21, 2011 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Just to add a statistic here, you said the U.S. imports 6M barrels per day, but the USEIA gives the number as 9M a day or about 52 percent of the total use. BP's Statistical Energy Reviews gives similar numbers.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 22, 2011 6:31 AM    Report this comment

Thanks to Paul for focusing on the external issues, which are critical. To grow biofuel, you need space, water, and maybe even fertilizer, the latter often being a petroleum product.

The Swift folks estimate that 1000 sq mi of switchgrass would supply U.S. 100LL consumption. That's not very much, a circle about 33 mi diameter. But fresh water supplies are not infinite, either.

Posted by: Paul Hekman | January 24, 2011 12:31 PM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?

Register

Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration

« Back to Full Story