The airline industry has been working its way toward a biofuel solution, but progress has been slow, and scale is still a problem. A tipping point does appear at hand, however. ASTM International, the agency that certifies jet fuel, has introduced a fast track process for biofuel producers with guidance from the US FAA. The first such formula to achieve certification under the new process involves the gasification of municipal solid waste, forest waste and other biomass in a blend with fossil fuel. Investment by oil and gas stakeholders is also playing a role. Commercial prospects seem distant. However, the growing urgency of climate action may restart interest in market-worthy algae-based fuels, as algae farming can provide a means of capturing and recycling carbon directly from power plants and other industrial operations.
The tar sands oil company Suncor has joined with the Japanese financial firm Mitsui in a combined USD 25 million biofuel venture called LanzaJet, which is an offshoot of the biotech firm LanzaTech. All Nippon Airways is also participating in the venture. LanzaTech has developed a robust microbe-based carbon recycling process that deploys living organisms to digest waste gas, with substantial assistance from the US Department of Energy. Under the new partnership, LanzaJet will build a 10 million gal/year demonstration plant in Georgia, with an additional USD 14 million in assistance from the Energy Department. The plant is expected to begin operations in 2022. Suncor and Mitsui have also developed a novel “phased investment” plan aimed at spurring interest among other investors in additional facilities, on an accelerated timeline. Years of work lie ahead as the airline industry unpacks its dependence on fossil fuels. However, the industry is moving forward even in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. The accelerated jet biofuel certification process, the use of more sustainable feedstocks, the carbon recycling angle and the scale-up of investor interest in new technology all point the way to more sustainable air travel as the global health crisis eases.