Can Jet Fuel be Carbon Friendly?

October 30, 2018


Transport & Environment:

Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming and its rapid growth puts it on track to consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. There is a way to avoid this outcome but we need to act fast, a green transport NGO has said. By driving out the use of fossil kerosene fuel through carbon pricing and requiring aircraft to switch to synthetic fuels, the climate impact of flying can be reduced dramatically, according to a new report by Transport & Environment (T&E).

While high profile promises such as short-haul electric aircraft or more efficient aircraft designs every 20 years won’t be sufficient to solve aviation’s climate problem, new near-zero-carbon electrofuels can be produced today and deployed immediately using existing engines and infrastructure. Electrofuels are produced by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide, but to do this sustainably the hydrogen must be produced using renewable electricity and the CO2 captured directly from the air.

Synthetic fuels have been used in the past to power aircraft but are significantly more expensive than aviation kerosene, which is tax free. Running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene, the report finds. Biofuels produced from wastes and residues can make a limited contribution to replacing fossil kerosene. Norway recently announced it would require jet fuel providers to blend half a percent of advanced biofuels into jet fuels from 2020.[1]

Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at T&E, said: “This report confirms that we need to decarbonise aviation if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming. The good news is that radically cleaner aviation is possible even with today’s technology. Getting to zero starts with properly pricing flying, and progressively increasing the use of sustainable synthetic fuels. There is a cost to this, but in light of how cheap subsidised air travel has become, and the incalculable cost of runaway climate change, it’s a price worth paying.”

To facilitate the progressive switch to electrofuels, demand for kerosene must start to be cut and carbon pricing must gradually be increased to the equivalent of €150 a tonne, the report finds. Taxing aircraft kerosene – currently exempt – and a strengthened EU ETS can help achieve this as can strict CO2 efficiency standards for planes and greater incentives for fleet renewal.

Cutting the emissions in air travel is proving particularly difficult.

With aircraft having a lifespan of 20 to 30 years, the models that are currently being used are locked into old and unsustainable methods of fuel consumption – while tax cuts on jet fuel kerosene are making alternative fuel sources comparatively more expensive.

Transport and Environment (T&E), a European non-governmental group for cleaner transport, has proposed the new fuel as a possible alternative route to zero emissions in a new report.

Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at T&E, said: “This report confirms that we need to decarbonise aviation if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming.

“The good news is that radically cleaner aviation is possible even with today’s technology.”

Electrofuels are produced through combining hydrogen with carbon from CO2.

The replacement fuel works by storing electrical energy from renewable sources within the chemical bonds of a liquid or gas.

Through the process of electrolysis, hydrogen is extracted from water.

“This is the most energy intensive bit of the process,” said Mr Murphy, although renewable sources such as solar power can be used.

“The next step is to combine it with CO2 and that gives you a new hydrocarbon which has properties that are equivalent to, or almost exactly the same, as kerosene today.”

Ankit Mathur, head of power at market analyst GlobalData, said: “Electrofuel is a carbon-neutral source of energy using electricity — generally renewable solar energy — to convert carbon dioxide emissions into fuels and other useful products.”

Talking about its green energy potential, he added: “Electrofuel production doesn’t require large swaths of land, nor does it pollute the environment, making it a promising source of alternative energy.”

In the report, T&E claims that with the correct source of CO2 captured from air, such fuels can be close to near zero emissions and carbon circular.

Although it sounds like a new technology, Mr Murphy explained that the concept of an alternative fuel was originally used by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War to turn coal into a drop-in fuel in place of the required liquid fuel that Germany didn’t have access to.

Why electrofuels are the best option for aircraft

Electrofuels are drop-in ready meaning that it is easier to deploy than other green solutions.

All planes today are suitable for this fuel and no adaptations or changes would be required to be made to the aircraft or its engines for it to work, according to Mr Murphy.

As a liquid fuel it could theoretically be used for other functions such as powering cars or heating homes.

However Mr Murphy doesn’t believe it would be a particularly good idea due to the large amounts of energy wasted in its production.

“You’re better off just plugging the electricity required for electrolysis straight into the house, and likewise with a car it’s much more efficient to plug electricity into the car to charge it,” he said.

However the use of a liquid fuel solves many fundamental problems for aviation.

Mr Murphy said: “The problem with aviation is that the batteries are very heavy so you wouldn’t be able to fly a very long distance with a battery powered electric aircraft.

“The other important feature of liquid fuels is that they are burned through the course of the flight, therefore the aircraft becomes lighter as the flight goes on and can travel a further distance.”




6 Responses to “Can Jet Fuel be Carbon Friendly?”

  1. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.

  2. Keith Omelvena Says:

    Or, fly less? Not an option the industry would consider obviously.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      In the 90s there was a proposal for high-speed rail in roughly a triangle for Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, which was shot down by lobbyists for airlines. People keep trying to resuscitate it.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Have no fear—-Musk will soon ride to the rescue with his Boring company and their tunnels for the Hyperloop. The only problem may be that will interfere with all the drilling, fracking, and hiding the wastewater therefrom (to say nothing of the problem TX has been having lately with flooding)

  3. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    The nice thing about mining the air for CO₂ is that the raw materials come to you and no mines need to be dug and materials transported.
    It’s difficult because the CO₂ is so rarified, but a way must be found to start removing the excess.
    Much better not to emit in the first place, but aviation is not going to go away as long as there are people wanting/needing to fly.

  4. Ron Benenati Says:

    I see the same argument being made for all combustion engines and the use of airborne co2 fuels.

    I wonder how much water is required to make these fuels, and if the fresh water demands of the worldwide combustion establishment that currently exists…to the extent of limiting climate degeneration…was applied, what the impact would be on rapidly diminishing water supplies?

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