Lufthansa takes off towards a new era of sustainably fuelled regular commercial scheduled flights
Right engine of the Lufthansa A321 is fuelled under a media spotlight with the 50/50 blend
Mon 18 July 2011 – The first in Lufthansa’s long-heralded series of commercial scheduled sustainable biofuel flights finally took off on Friday morning (July 15). Save for camera-wielding media, the 50-minute flight from Hamburg to Frankfurt passed uneventfully for passengers taking the shuttle. Four daily flights between the two cities will now take place using the same Airbus A321 aircraft over the next six months as part of the airline’s burnFAIR project to research the long-term effects of jet biofuels under normal operations. Around 1,600 tonnes of fuel has been supplied by Neste Oil, which is a 50/50 blend of sustainably-sourced biosynthetic kerosene mixed with conventional jet fuel at the Finnish renewable fuel company’s Porvoo bio-refinery. The blend will be used to power one of the aircraft’s two engines. Certainly in the short term, Neste is likely to remain Europe’s only supplier of commercial quantities of sustainable jet biofuel and says it is in discussions with other prospective airline customers.
The 800 tonnes of Neste’s renewable jet biofuel supplied for the project is made up of 80% camelina from the United States, 15% jatropha sourced from Indonesia and Mozambique and 5% tallow (animal fats). Lufthansa’s VP Aviation Biofuel, Joachim Buse, assures the batch has been meticulously researched to ensure the biomass meets either Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) or International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) standards.
Buse recognises that Neste Oil’s core NExBTL fuel product is largely based on controversial palm oil but says Neste has fully complied with criteria set down by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Although the batch of fuel to be used in the Lufthansa trial does not officially contain palm oil he does not have qualms about its use, subject to stringent sustainability conditions.
He said the RSPO has been very careful over the land use issue and was proven to be a good indicator of a sustainable feedstock production. “There may be traces of palm oil in our batch due to the production process but we don’t have a problem with that. We know the entire batch has been produced on a sustainable basis,” he told GreenAir Online in Hamburg before the inaugural flight.
“There is no doubt mistakes have been made with palm oil with regards to deforestation but not when used as an energy crop. We have seen the demand for palm oil increasing over the years for animal feedstocks and the human food chain and those errors have served as a wake-up call. We fully understand the position of the NGOs and there is a challenge to ensure there is no harm done to nature and the production of food.”
Buse said the 1,600 tonnes of 50/50 blended will be enough for the full six-month programme. He says the airline has paid a little more than double the going price for the biofuel element compared to jet kerosene, which is currently around $990 per tonne. However, the premium has to some extent been offset by a German government grant of €2.5 million ($3.5m) towards the €6.6 million ($9.3m) burnFAIR project.
Whether the biofuel premium is a price worth paying for continued regular flights after the end of the project is a question Buse said will be debated internally during the autumn. “However, our CEO has indicated he would like the flights to continue. Whether we do it in the same magnitude, for example we could use a lower blend, has not yet been decided but we will have to bear the cost ourselves.”
He foresees more jet biofuel production capacity coming onstream over the next year or so from the United States but, for the time being, Neste will remain the market leader for these fuels in Europe.
Lufthansa is estimating that the use of the 800 tonnes of biofuel over the six-month series of flights will yield CO2 reductions of around 1,500 tonnes, which works out as a 60% lifecycle reduction in CO2 emissions. Senior Aviation Biofuel Manager Dr Alexander Zschocke said this was a conservative estimate at this stage. A more accurate calculation will be carried out by the German Biomass Research Centre (DBFZ) in Leipzig and the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg. “They will also follow up the entire lifecycle chain from the farm to the wing,” added Buse.
For Neste Oil, the renewable jet fuel market is clearly a major business opportunity and the Finnish company sees itself as the only European supplier at this time capable of meeting a demand for industrial quantities of sustainably sourced jet biofuel. Indeed, Matti Lehmus, Executive VP Oil Products and Renewables for Neste, believes his company and Dynamic Fuels of the United States, which supplied fuel via SkyNRG for the recent KLM biofuel flight, are the only players in the global field right now.
“One of the important milestones of the Lufthansa series of flights is that it shows there are industrial-scale quantities of sustainable jet fuel available,” he said.
Lehmus says his company has four refineries with annual production capacity for around 2 million tonnes of renewable NExBTL diesel fuel, much of which has the potential to be converted to jet fuel.
“We have an ongoing dialogue with a number of airlines at present,” he revealed, but declined to comment on the on-off relationship with his country’s flag carrier, Finnair. The airline was reported to be in discussions with Neste at the turn of the year over taking early supplies of NExBTL jet fuel but later pulled out, rumoured to be over palm oil concerns. Last week, Finnair announced it would be starting flights between Amsterdam and Helsinki using renewable jet fuel from Dynamic Fuels supplied by SkyNRG.
Although palm oil makes up around half of the company’s current source of biomass, Lehmus said it is a matter of customer preference as to what sustainable feedstocks they wish to use.
“With our feedstock strategy we have been making a lot of effort in making sure we can trace every batch, whether it is palm oil or from other current feedstocks, to its origin to make sure it fulfils stringent EU sustainability criteria. In parallel, we have also been looking at other future feedstocks so we could offer renewable jet fuels from any sustainable vegetable oil-based product.”
He concedes that the availability of sufficient commercial quantities of biomass that can be adequately traced for sustainability is still the major challenge. A research stream closer to home is focusing on wood waste and a project is ongoing with a large Finnish paper manufacturer involving a demonstration plant. “We know the technology works but we have not yet made an investment decision,” he said.
The other barrier, of course, is the price of jet fuel from renewable sources and whether airline customers are willing to pay the premium. “No question, it is more expensive today than regular jet fuel. It is a function of the relative price of crude oil compared with that of the biomass – which is a big factor driving the difference.”
However, he sees factors such as the introduction in 2012 of Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme, under which biofuels are zero-rated and therefore potentially saving money spent by airlines on carbon permits, as helping to drive jet biofuels forward.
Also taking part in the inaugural biofuel flight celebrations was Dr Klaus Nittinger, Adviser to the Lufthansa board on fleet matters and also President of the new German aviation biofuel association aireg (Aviation Initiative for Renewable Energy in Germany) that was launched last month (see article). Dr Nittinger said he looked forward to learning from Neste’s expertise and knowledge in developing sustainable jet fuels and welcomed all-comers who supported their introduction.
He told GreenAir Online: “We need an industrial base to make this a sustainable business. For the time being we can only buy very minor quantities of biofuels so we have to get an industrial process into action to develop what is a commodity for the future.
“We want to gather all the players together in our initiative – farmers, producers, airlines, manufacturers and so on – into a process chain.”
Dr Nittinger said a key role of aireg would be to act as the voice of the industry when dealing with the German government on the issue, and a secretary of state would serve on an advisory council. He revealed that there would be biannual meetings of aireg members and five working groups were being established
He said there was no longer any aviation resistance in Europe to jet biofuels, which had shown themselves to have more energy content than conventional kerosene, with a 2-3% improvement in fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions, and were also cleaner burning in terms of other emissions such as soot particles.
Also attending the event was Airbus chief Tom Enders. “These daily biofuel flights are a significant step forward in our industry-wide pursuit of a sustainable future for aviation,” he said.