People are travelling by air more than ever before. According to Airports Council International (ACI), the number of passengers increased with 6.5 % between 2015 and 2016. Consequently, the carbon footprint is immense as well as the need for a greener alternative.
For those who have flown across Sweden, or travelled by train across the country, it is striking how much of the country’s 441,000 square kilometres that is covered by forest. Actually, 55 per cent of the entire country is made up of forests, whereas the figure is 31 percent, when looking at the entire planet.
There is a lively discussion ongoing about the impact of modern forestry and its repercussions on species richness and biodiversity, but the fact is that almost all forests in Sweden are the result of forestry practices in one form or another. And if you accept that the forest is a resource, the question is, how can we utilise it most effectively?
What will happen if we could produce jet fuel with renewable material from the forests? Renewable materials could definitely be part of the answer to bring down the CO₂ emissions from the growing air traffic.
The financial association Fly Green Fund in Karlstad, Sweden, has been thinking carefully about the matter for years. The idea is to encourage the production of green aviation fuel and to give passengers and airlines the opportunity of using it.
Of course, the business aspect is paramount. Many agree that there is a huge need for airlines and passengers to opt for a greener alternative, but how much are we willing to pay for it? To begin with, we have the consumers or passengers, who may be willing to pay ten per cent more, if they knew that 50 per cent of the fuel is renewable.
But are they willing to pay 50 per cent more? That question is of course also key to the airlines. In addition, they are dependent on having access to a reliable resource. It is not enough for someone to produce a few barrels of green jet fuel here and there. If there is going to be a serious breakthrough, a certified working process, and a continuous large-scale production is required. Which in turn calls for major investment.
COWI, IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, Fly Green Fund, Swedavia, Luleå University of Technology and Jämtlandsgas have set up a consortium with the vision to have a Swedish bio-refinery in place to provide airlines with aviation fuel derived from renewable raw materials. The project is 80 per cent financed by Sweden’s Innovation Agency Vinnova.
There are two principal focus areas; 1) the raw materials and 2) the technology.
In terms of the raw material, the source is wood chips and black liquor.
Wood chips are logging residue left over from harvesting operations. Currently, most are left at the felling site where it slowly decays. Black liquor is a by-product of pulp manufacture resulting from the sulphate process, and consists of the cooking chemicals that are recycled in the process as well as wood solids released from the wood and incinerated.
The technology path involves a conversion of synthesis gas, which occurs when gasifying organic raw materials into a synthetic hydrocarbon based propellant. In the past, there has been an interest in refining the raw materials through fermentation, which is similar to the process of producing ethanol as a propellant.
In January, it was time for kick-off of a project to ferment forest sugar into jet fuel funded by the Swedish Transport Administration and Fly Green Fund.
The next step was to initiate laboratory trials. At COWI, we were responsible for obtaining the necessary permits with the goal remaining the same - to ensure a process that works thereby paving the way for large-scale and economically sustainable manufacturing.
A new initiative was to add green raw materials directly to traditional refineries, making traditional fossil-based aviation fuel greener than it is today.
In any event, the economy is the narrow sector. In order to be able to produce enough green aviation fuel to satisfy the airlines and to achieve sustained volumes over time, the industry needs major investments. At this point, no operator is prepared to invest the billions that would be required to construct a full-scale manufacturing unit, and a technological advancement probably needs to be duplicated through exports.
I know it is subject to many political discussions, and over time I believe there is hope for change in a more sustainable direction.