Flying High with Used Cooking Oil, Canola Oil -- or Pot?

biofuel jet fuel story

We know pot can get you high, but can it also help airplanes fly? A biofuel company in Washington thinks so.

The Evergreen State recently legalized the personal use of marijuana and officials are hammering out the rules for governing how commercial growers will farm and sell the cannabis to be sold in-state.

Washington pot farmers will have plenty of unused stalks and other plant material left over after harvest and the folks at Ballard Biofuel in Seattle don't want all that potential energy to go to waste. They think they can make it into high-quality jet fuel.

The company already sells soy-based hydraulic oil and other biodegradable, plant-based lubricants and fuels for use in industrial machinery. Now it is working on securing cash backing to build a bio-plant that can convert the leftovers from what is expected to be a hefty, legal marijuana market into jet fuel.

"A lot of airlines would love to have renewable fuels in their jets," says Joseph Koniak, spokesperson for Ballard Biofuel. "And the potential customers we've talked to don't have a problem with marijuana waste being used as [raw material]. It's just making sure the quality is high enough for jet fuel."

After all, notes Koniak, if your put a bad batch of bio-diesel in your car and it breaks down, it can be a hassle. "But if you have a bad batch of biofuel on an airplane, it's going to be an emergency," he says. "So any alternative jet fuel has to be excellent."

Fuel is subject to erratic price changes and represents the largest piece of most airlines' budgets. And despite energy-saving improvements in the design of airplanes and airplane engines, commercial aviation burns gobs of conventional jet fuel and emits vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2).

To address some of those issues, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the aviation industry has voluntarily committed to achieving a 1.5 percent improvement in efficiency through 2020; carbon neutral growth starting in 2020; and a 50 percent reduction in net carbon emissions by 2050 compared with 2005.

"Biofuels are seen as crucial to achieving these targets," says IATA spokesperson Perry Flint. "And the industry is focused on sustainable, drop-in biofuels that do not compete with food crops for water or soil."

To that end, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) was established in 2006 and, since then, plants, woody biomass from forest products, algae, municipal waste, recycled vegetable cooking oil, animal fats and sugarcane have been considered or tested in aircraft in search of safe, alternative, sustainable biofuels.

Tests using blends of conventional jet fuel with alternative biofuels began in 2008 with a Virgin Atlantic Airways flight that used coconut and babassu palm oil. Since 2011, when the American Society for Testing Materials certified a few types of biofuels for use on commercial jets, there have been more than 1,500 flights on United, Alaska, British Airways, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and several other airlines using a mix of traditional and low-carbon alternative fuels.

The most recent demonstration is currently underway. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is operating a weekly flight between JFK International and Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport using fuel obtained from used cooking oil.

"There is no silver bullet," says Flint. "Biofuels work. But for them to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels, production has to take place on an industrial scale, supplies have to be made widely available and costs have to drop."

For now, the process remains complicated and still quite expensive.

"These alternative fuels have to be specially made and the cost now is about six to eight times higher than [that of] conventional jet fuel," says Carol Sim, director of environmental affairs for Alaska Airlines. Even if an airline signed an order for a large amount of a specific jet fuel alternative today, Sim says, "a supplier would need time to ramp up production and would probably not be able to deliver a reliable supply for a few years."

That may be why "airlines continue to hesitate a little bit because there's still work being done to mature the technology and the supply chain," says CAAFI executive director Steve Csonka.

But the dedication is there and definitely moving forward.

"Passengers are increasingly interested in things they can do to reduce their impact on the environment. And travel is one of those thing they can influence," says Jimmy Samartzis, managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability for United Airlines.

"Passengers care. Our company and others care," says Samartzis. "We hope passengers recognize that and it makes them feel better not just about what we're doing with our aircraft but what we're creating for the future."

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