Airplanes from the Brazilian aeronautics company Embraer are testing plant-based fuel.
Credit: Courtesy of Embraer
Biofuel Revolution Reaches Aviation
By Mario Osava
An alternative fuel for aviation should be shared internationally and free of protectionism, says the Brazilian inventor of biokerosene and biodiesel.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 5 (Tierramérica).- Biokerosene has the potential to take off on the international market faster than other alternative fuels, even though it is among the newest and faces stricter quality standards because it is to be used in aviation.
Airplanes have a useful lifespan of 30 to 40 years. And their manufacturers want to ensure they have fuel until the end, chemical engineer Expedito Parente explains to Tierramérica. Three decades ago, he invented biodiesel and biokerosene, both refined from oleaginous crops.
Before today's fuel-hungry airplanes are ready to be scrapped decades from now, petroleum-based fuel could disappear or cost too much to make flying economically feasible. Investment therefore is needed to develop, perfect and produce plant-based kerosene, fomented also by pressure to mitigate climate change.
The boom in fuels made from maize, sugarcane, palms and soybeans, among other plants, is in part due to the fact that they emit less greenhouse-effect gas than petroleum derivatives, and to the fact that the latter are in increasingly shorter supply.
Bio-jet fuel is being tested "throughout the air transport chain, including in the manufacturing of planes, turbines and accessories, and the network of aeronautical fuel distribution," says Parente. In two years it should be confirmed as a valid alternative to kerosene from petroleum, he predicts.
The process involves "the entire interested universe," Parente stresses, and avoids naming the U.S.-based Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, which signed a cooperation agreement with Tecbio, the company that Parente founded in 2001 to promote his projects. "The initial agreement was expanded to the rest of the actors," he explains.
His emphasis emerges from a vision that the scientist and entrepreneur explains with the didactic approach of a university professor faced with the question about the commercial future of biokerosene and the possibility that it might run into protectionist barriers, like those that affect Brazilian ethanol in industrialized countries.
Ethanol "has its own world, that of individual transport, of small engines"; biodiesel is aimed at "collective transportation, large engines and vehicles like trucks, buses, tractors, trains and ships," and both are different from biokerosene because they are for land and water transportation, Parente said.
Unlike biodiesel, which is intended for local consumption, making use of available raw materials, biokerosene for aviation "has to be international, shared", and free from national protectionisms. It requires networking, as is being done with the tests, says the expert.
This cooperative approach also helps in speeding up its development. Furthermore, aviation does not have the alternative of an electric motor like those for land vehicles, which forces the concentration of efforts on bio-jet fuels, he adds.
Parente patented his two fuel inventions in 1980. But, because a long period went by without their being used, the patents ran out, and biodiesel and biokerosene became public domain.
Now they are gaining strength due to the threat of climate change. In Brazil, biodiesel will only be required to be mixed with petroleum diesel, beginning in January, at a proportion of two percent. This is three years behind Europe's advances in this area.
Parente began to dedicate himself to biofuels in the late 1970s, as a professor at the Federal University of Ceará, in Brazil's Northeast, far from the country's big cities and dynamic centers. His dream was frustrated by lack of government interest in the production of biofuel, including biokerosene, which was tested in 1983 with a successful flight of about 1,000 kilometers in a Brazilian-made aircraft.
At the time "there was mental myopia," says Parente, who now fears "an astigmatism" that distorts the vision of biofuels. Energy coming from biomass is different from that of petroleum because it constitutes a different paradigm and because it achieves three missions, he teaches in his lectures.
In addition to the environment, biofuel has a social mission, because it should improve rural living conditions, "valuing the human being"; and strategic, preparing the way for the "solar era", which he predicts will succeed the petroleum era.
At 67, Parente has rekindled his enthusiasm, announcing the May 2008 inauguration of the first "semi-industrial" plant for refining oil from the babaçú palm (Orbignya phalerata martins), abundant across 18 million hectares in the Northeast and the eastern Amazon, and the opening of a landmark biokerosene research center.
Strong production is essential, because a jet airplane needs at least 10,000 liters of fuel to take off, he says. Lauric oil, produced by palms, is the raw material of his plant-based jet fuel. "There is another alternative source," but still requires much study and is "a secret to be kept for now," he adds.
The aeronautics industry is faced with a unique situation -- environmental pressures and the "end of petroleum" -- which requires strong investment in biofuels, the only alternative that seems viable, according to Delcio Rodrigues, energy expert with Vitae Civilis, a non-governmental organization that is active on the climate change problem.
Air transport is a fast-growing industry and is the target of numerous reports on greenhouse gas emissions. But replacing fossil-fuel kerosene is difficult, because airplanes need fuels "of great energy intensity" to be able to travel long distances without increasing the weight being transported, Rodrigues explained to Tierramérica.
Alternatives like the ethanol now being used in cars won't work, because it has a higher consumption rate by volume than gasoline, he said.
But in Brazil, the agricultural airplane, the Ipanema, does fly on fuel alcohol. The model created by Embraer, the national aeronautics company and one of the leading manufacturers of light and medium aircraft, was the first certified to consume ethanol, in 2004. But the crop-duster plane is small and does not travel the long distances that commercial flights do.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.