Stephen Vaughan explains how a new project by BA could signpost the future.
When it comes to reducing fuel emissions, many words are spoken but few actions taken, especially within the aviation industry. A recent announcement detailing collaboration between British Airways (BA) and the Solena Group, a bioenergy business in renewable energy solutions, certainly falls into the category of ‘action’. The project is called GreenSky and will see the construction of Europe’s first sustainable jet fuel plant, in east London.
“Solena and our fuel team have been discussing for a long time the possibility of introducing sustainable fuels here at BA,” says Leigh Hudson, Environmental Manager in charge of the project. “However, the impetus to do so was not strong enough. This changed when the US government introduced a mandate to source 50% of its fuel from domestic sources by 2016. This created the opportunity to certify possible new fuel sources and was the catalyst we needed. Once we knew certification was underway we received financial incentives from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. It was a merging of those two things: technically it was possible and it met our own aspirations in terms of our emission reductions.”
In line with the requirements outlined by the Turner Report of 2006, BA has an emission reduction target of 50% by 2050, along with shorter-term carbon reduction targets. “Industry-leading targets,” according to Jonathon Counsell, Head of Environment at BA. “Solena, who are based in Washington DC, have chosen to work with us because they see the commitment we are making towards reducing carbon emissions.”
The self-contained plant will be located at one of four potential sites in good proximity to London City Airport (LCY) and when in full operation will be able to convert 500,000 tonnes of waste per annum into 16 million gallons of jet fuel. The low-carbon fuel produced will power BA’s fleet of aircraft at LCY from 2014. The fuel itself will be produced by feeding mixed waste biomass into a high temperature gasifier, producing BioSynGas. A process known as Fischer Tropsch will then convert the gas into biofuel to produce the biojet fuel. The new green fuel will offer lifecycle greenhouse gas savings of up to 95% compared to jet kerosene and through its utilisation by BA at LCY the fuel’s reduction in carbon emissions is the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road. The plant will emit oxygen, nitrogen, argon, steam and CO2, though the plant itself will be CO2 neutral.
“As a result of the plant producing fuel and sustainable energy the CO2 reduction is 550,000 tonnes per year,” says Counsell. “This includes a 145,000 tonne lifecycle saving of the biofuel compared to fossil fuel and a 250,000 tonne saving from diverting waste from landfill. Since here in the UK we have landfill tax, by taking waste that would otherwise be buried in the ground this is an excellent opportunity for waste providers to reduce their landfill tax burden.”
The current rate that local authorities pay for landfill tax is $40 per tonne, a figure which is set to nearly double by 2014. Based on the annual figure of 500,000 tonnes of waste, this entire process will save local authorities £36 million (US$55m) per year.”
“We are locating the plant in east London because it is in close proximity to London City Airport,” says Hudson. “It all helps to reduce our overall carbon footprint. The fuel is likely to be tankered the short distance from the plant to the airport.”
A by-product of the conversion of the waste to biofuel is a substance called naphtha. Aside from being used as feedstock for the petrochemicals industry, Naphtha is also employed as a blending component in petrol.
“We are looking to use the naphtha in the trucks we deploy to deliver the fuel,” says Hudson. “In addition, the Fischer Tropsch tail gas will be used to produce 20 megawatts of excess electricity for export to the national grid or converted into steam to be used in a district heating system. From the naphtha to the excess electricity to the inert slag material, which as a byproduct of the process can be used as an alternative to aggregates used in construction, we are trying to get as many benefits into the supply chain from this process as possible.”
Once in full operation, the plant will produce twice the amount of fuel required by BA’s fleet at LCY. BA may eventually consider transporting some of this green fuel to its operations at Heathrow and Gatwick.
“We are quite optimistic about future opportunities for biofuels,” says Counsell. “IATA has stipulated the target that by 2017, 10% of all aviation fuel used must be alternative fuels. It is exciting because the momentum is behind this. Whilst the automotive industry is looking at the likes of electricity to power vehicles, I am certain aircraft will be using liquid-powered jet engines for the next 40 to 50 years. This means that there are significant opportunities for the use and development of biofuels in our sector. The industry has woken up and sees aviation as a long term opportunity.”
Two Chairmen Speak
“This unique partnership with Solena will pave the way for realising our ambitious goal of reducing net carbon emissions by 50% by 2050,” says Willie Walsh, British Airways’ Chief Executive. “We believe it will lead to the production of a real sustainable alternative to jet kerosene. We are absolutely determined to reduce our impact on climate change and are proud to lead the way on aviation’s environmental initiatives.”
“The Solena-British Airways BioJetFuel project will efficiently convert biomass into clean renewable fuels and electricity and is completely carbon neutral,” remarked Dr Robert Do, chairman and Chief Executive of the Solena Group. “The plant will be a state-of-the-art renewable fuel manufacturing facility, distinct from a standard waste to energy incinerator facility. It will not produce any polluting emissions or undesirable by-products.”
Waste Not Want Not
Every year London produces three million tonnes of organic waste. Nearly two-thirds is burnt in incinerators or buried in landfill, costing local authorities huge sums and producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The recently-developed Food Waste to Fuel Alliance brings together developers, food producers and energy companies to provide the infrastructure needed to extract fuel from the capital’s leftover food and other waste. This will act as an alternative to fossil fuels to produce a greener energy to heat and power homes along with powering public transport and other vehicles. Five biofuel plants are mooted for development in London by 2012, including the one already earmarked by BA and Solena.
“I welcome this fantastic new facility in east London,” says London Mayor Boris Johnson. “We have been working with British Airways and Solena to drive this project forward to help un-tap the massive potential to generate cleaner, less polluting energy from waste, otherwise destined for landfill. We are working to bring together more organisations in this way to harvest the capital’s rubbish to fuel homes, businesses and even transport.”