The August 16-22, 2008 issue of NewScientist features a very interesting article called "A tank of the green stuff" (pages 34-37). Airlines are facing volatile and rising fuel costs, plus the risk of fuel shortages. Unlike land transport, which it least in theory can be converted to run entirely on electricity, air travel depends on energy-dense kerosene. As if that weren’t bad enough, the aviation industry is a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions that will come under increasing scrutiny as countries try to manage and eventually reduce their emissions.
So the airlines are looking seriously at turning biofuels into aviation fuel. The problem with first generation biofuels (apart from an unfortunate but solvable tendency to clog in high-altitude cold conditions) is that they require large amounts of feedstock to produce. When Virgin Atlantic airlines test-flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam earlier this year, it used a biofuel made from coconut and babssu oil produced by Imperium Renewables of Seattle. But according to NewScientist, that flight alone would have consumed 3 million coconuts had it been run entirely on biofuels. That’s why Virgin and its partners stressed that the flight was "proof of concept." Because of the large volumes involved, NewScientist estimates that biofuels derived from Jatropha and even biomass (e.g., waste timber) would use up huge swathes of land (much larger than France and Germany, respectively) .
Enter algae. Biofuel from algae could be produced, in theory, at 36 tonnes per hectare. To satisfy the 2007 consumption of jet fuel, that would require commiting 66,000 square kilometers to algae produce–an area about the size of Ireland. That certianly sounds a bit more manageable!
There are many technical hurdles between now and commercial production of algae, but the airlines may provide an important catalyst for the development of this new technology. Related stories on the topic can be found in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Biodiesel Magazine.
Recognizing that algae is likely to be among the most important next generation of biofuels, Stoel Rives is in the process of preparing the new Law of Algae, which will be our eighth "Law of" book (unless, of course, we can come up with a catchier title between now and the publication date), Stay tuned–the new book should be available in October. Please subscribe to our Renewable Energy Mailing List if you’d like to receive notice when the Law of Algae is published.