Biofuel as a Jet Fuel Alternative?
The seeds of a humble weed could lower a jet fuel’s cradle-to-grave carbon emissions by 84 percent. Camelina sativa is an oilseed crop and it might be used as fuel in aircrafts in the near future. A study conducted at Michigan Technological University claimed that Camelina has shown to be one of the more promising alternatives to petroleum jet fuel. They studied the whole process i.e. from planting to airplane’s tailpipe. David Shonnard, Robbins Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering, studied the carbon dioxide emissions of jet fuel made from Camelina oil. He elaborates, “Camelina jet fuel exhibits one of the largest greenhouse gas emission reductions of any agricultural feedstock-derived biofuel I’ve ever seen. This is the result of the unique attributes of the crop – its low fertilizer requirements, high oil yield, and the availability of its co-products, such as meal and biomass, for other uses.”
Let’s learn something about Camelina. Camelina sativa belongs to the mustard family. Camelina sativa’s origin can be traced to Europe. It is also known as false flax or gold-of-pleasure. It offers certain benefits. It is a dry-land crop, needs little nitrogen and can be grown in rotation with wheat. It boosts the strength of the soil. Shonnard shares his knowledge, “After a Camelina crop the land is returned ‘rested’ and ready for another 3 or 4 years of wheat cultivation.” If you are growing Camelina you don’t have to worry about ‘investment’ because it requires minimal input. So if we talk in the language of economics the cost of production is significantly lower than other alternative fuel crops. David Shonnard shares another benefit of the crop, “Camelina is a short season crop (85 to 100 days) and is frost tolerant so it can be planted early. We can use excess Camelina oil as feedstock for animals. Eastern Washington, Montana, and the Dakotas are cultivating Camelina. But we should remember that if the demand increases it can be cultivated in other dry areas of U.S.A. We can bring more uncultivated area under this crop too.”
Camelina oil seems right for the conversion to a hydrocarbon green jet fuel. It meets or sometimes exceeds all petroleum jet fuel specifications. Camelina oil is companionable with existing fuel infrastructure, so we don’t have to invest heavily on that account. Shonnard shares his opinion, “It is almost an exact replacement for fossil fuel. Jets can’t use oxygenated fuels like ethanol; they have to use hydrocarbon replacements.”
Boeing executive Billy Glover, who is the managing director of environmental strategy, says about Camelina oil, “It performed as well if not better than traditional jet fuel during our test flight with Japan Airlines earlier this year and supports our goal of accelerating the market availability of sustainable, renewable fuel sources that can help aviation reduce emissions. It’s clear from the life cycle analysis that Camelina is one of the leading near-term options and, even better, it’s available today.”
Though there are a few hiccups such as price and availability of commercial-scale quantities of second generation feedstocks. Farmers should also be taken into confidence about growing a new crop. And refineries too should be willing to process it. If such hurdles can be taken care of, it can create job and income opportunities in rural areas.