Unviable greenheart

Biofuel flights might be good for publicity but difficult to scale up

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As SpiceJet’s Bombardier Q400 took off from Dehradun on August 27, so did the ambitions of the aviation industry to cleanse the environment of its carbon footprint, which, by the way, accounts for only 2% of global greenhouse emissions. This comes soon after the government announced the new biofuel policy on August 10 and lowering of GST on bio-diesel and ethanol to 12% and 5% respectively.

SpiceJet’s 43-minute flight that landed in Delhi carried 20 passengers and was dubbed as India’s first biofuel powered flight. What must be noted is that only 25% of the fuel used was oil extracted from Jatropha seeds, developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – Indian Institute of Petroleum in Dehradun. The remaining 75% was traditional Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF).

Back in 2008, Virgin Atlantic had flown the world’s first biofuel-powered aircraft, utilising babassu oil and coconut oil. However, Virgin’s efforts are not limited to that as it is trying to extract oil from algae as a viable commercial alternative.  It is also experimenting with towing flights to runways, thereby cutting down over 50% of pre-flight fuel consumption that’s used up on the taxiway.

Virgin is not alone in its quest to clear the skies. Biofuel is being used across the world, varying only in the raw material used – United Airlines uses natural oils and agricultural waste, while Qantas, Norwegian and Dutch carrier KLM uses carinata seeds (a type of mustard), forestry waste and used cooking respectively. Scandinavian Airlines, in an attempt to prevent fuel wastage when circling overhead is using Continuous Descent Approach, custom software that monitors weather and air traffic conditions to adjust the speed of the aircraft accordingly.

The big picture here is that lower the import dependency on ATF, lower will be the costs, and hence, airfare. With the rupee at an all-time low, rising oil prices and a dearth of partners to buy ATF from thanks to the trade war, choosing alternative fuel is definitely the way forward.

However, biofuel poses its own set of problems. There’s no infrastructure to mass-produce biofuel and deliver it to all airports. There are only two airports in the world – Los Angeles and Oslo – that support biojet fuel as of now. In terms of mass-production, too, due to the fact that biofuel can be produced from a variety of things – seeds, wood and even waste – standardisation and certification will be a pain.

Even more critical is that there’s vague backing to the argument of biofuel being environment-friendly. Virgin Atlantic’s babassu and coconut oil fuelled flight was not allowed to continue because of the dangers of using food as fuel. Even in the case of SpiceJet’s use of Jatropha, an assessment by Yale School of Forestry shows that the tropical plant can either reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% or increase by 60% depending on the circumstances in which it is produced.

In addition, the National Biofuel Policy aims at setting up a funding scheme of Rs.50 billion in six years for 2G ethanol biorefineries in India – a technology which is untested and has not even taken off commercially internationally. Steps towards promoting biofuel should, thus, be carefully monitored as a slight misstep can bring about displacement of agriculture, deforestation and a threat to food security and biodiversity.