Boeing pilots the birth of biofuel for aviation's sustainable growth

Use of biofuels in commercial aircraft has gained critical ground in little more than a decade

June 26, 2019 in Our Environment

It began in fall 2006, when a group in the United Kingdom called Plane Stupid staged protests criticizing short-haul flights—part of a chorus of environmental protests across Europe urging people to stop flying.

Boeing heard the message. And against that backdrop, it began developing a comprehensive environmental strategy, which included sustainable aviation fuel as a new way to reduce life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions from airplanes by up to 80 percent.

Aided by Boeing’s technical expertise, Virgin Atlantic flew the world’s first airline biofuel test flight on a 20 percent blend made from coconut and babassu oil in one fuel tank of a 747-400 from London to Amsterdam on Feb. 24, 2008.

Boeing then supported three more test flights with Air New Zealand, Continental and Japan Airlines to gain certification of biofuels for commercial use. The airplanes were equipped with engines from CFM, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce to gather broader results. The fuel, derived from waste animal fats, was called HEFA (for hydro-processed fatty acid esters and free fatty acids).

Fast-forward a decade, and Boeing began offering customers the option of powering their commercial airplane delivery flights with sustainable aviation fuel to spur its use and support the industry’s drive to protect the environment.

“This is another step in our journey to encourage the adoption of sustainable fuels and help commercial aviation earn its license to keep growing,” said Sheila Remes, who leads Boeing Commercial Airplanes strategy.

When it takes delivery of its first three Boeing 737 MAX airplanes, Alaska Airlines, the first participant in the initiative, plans to fly them on a blend of biofuel and conventional jet fuel to its hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Boeing is offering biofuel to customers accepting new airplanes at its delivery centers in Seattle, Everett, Washington, and North Charleston, South Carolina, as well as using biofuel for certain flight-test operations at Boeing Field in Seattle.

In January, Etihad Airways became the latest operator to demonstrate the viability of biofuels by flying the world’s first passenger flight using sustainable fuel made from a plant that grows in saltwater. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam on a 787-9 Dreamliner culminated a three-year research project supported by Etihad, Boeing and several other organizations.

The United Arab Emirates project seeks to develop aviation biofuel to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and lessen the country’s need to import nearly 85 percent of its food. Fish raised at a unique aquaculture farm in the UAE fertilize the plant and provide food for the desert nation.

“The technology shows significant promise to transform coastal deserts into productive farmland supporting food security and cleaner skies,” said Sean Schwinn, Boeing International vice president of strategy and market development.

Sustainable aviation fuel progressed from the first Virgin Atlantic test flight in 2008 to everyday use in less than a decade—with Boeing playing a leadership role in its birth and growth. Test flights, research and rigorous reviews by airlines, airplane and engine manufacturers, refiners, regulators and others led to HEFA’s certification for commercial use in July 2011.

After HEFA’s certification, various airlines began flying passenger flights using a blend of biofuel and conventional fuel to demonstrate their environmental commitment and market interest. Starting in 2015, several operators bought nearly 1.7 billion gallons of biofuel to use over the next five years. Norway’s Oslo Airport became the first in the world to regularly offer it to all departures in 2016—followed by Los Angeles, Stockholm and Bergen, Norway.

In the decade following the first test flight, global air travel doubled to more than 4 billion passengers annually. Airlines have been modernizing their fleets, however, and the industry has taken other steps to improve airplane operations—enabling aviation to exceed its goal of improving fuel efficiency by 1.5% a year.

By Paul McElroy