Brazilian Biofuels Take Off

Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 13.27.37Global aviation industry leaders and research scientists in Brazil have defined the pathways for new generations of sustainable biofuels needed to power the US$ 3.8 trillion per year industry, if it is to meet targets halving its carbon emissions over the next 35 years. In 2009 the world’s consumption  of aviation fuel was around 46 billion gallons.

Planemaker Boeing, together with Brazil’s national aviation champion Embraer and research funding institute FAPESP, in June published “Flight Path to Aviation—Biofuels in Brazil: Action Plan.”  (see link  to full report at the bottom of this article) This comprehensive report builds upon the findings of a yearlong series of industry workshops across Brazil, to propose a strategic roadmap for a biokerosene industry. The report was compiled by academics at the University of Campinas under guidance of the three sponsors.

Sustainability is a key issue for aviation. Although currently responsible for no more than 3% of human-induced carbon emissions, the curve is rising sharply. A handful of ecologists such as James ‘Gaia’ Lovelock may believe aircraft –induced upper atmosphere pollution can actually help to reduce greenhouse effects, but the consensus is for the aviation industry to clean up its act.

“The aeronautics sector established ambitious targets for CO2 emissions, and there are several manners to reach them,” said Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Brazil. “One of them is to produce more efficient aircraft that utilize less fuel and issue fewer pollutants. For this reason, we are thinking about alternative fuels.”

That creates special demands for an appropriate biofuel that must be both kerosene-like, and cost competitive.

Unlike Brazil’s decades-old ‘Proalcool’ ethanol fuel industry that required the invention of a new breed of car engines, the first requirement for biokerosene is that it must be a “drop-in” fuel – able to used with existing planes, turbines, distribution systems — all based on oil-derived kerosene.

For almost a decade, engine makers have experimented with mixing oily biofuels with kerosene. The feedstocks have included ASTM-approved sustainable HEFA (Hydro-processed Esters and Fatty Acids)  to a  maximum 50 per cent permissible mix of biofuel with Jet-A kerosene. Much of this  biofuel has been derived from camelina.


Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 13.19.01Airlines are also playing their part. Globally, they have created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), an organization focused on accelerating the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuels. Of course, not everyone’s a believer: some airlines are seeking “green” fuels that don’t reply on  the cultivation of crops or the use of land that might generate food for humans. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, is experimenting with alternative fuels derived  from waste industrial gases.

Around the world there have been a number of initiatives – notably by engine makers GE. Its Aviation Division has committed to purchase 5 million gallons of biofuels annually starting in January 2015. That amounts to one-half of the 10 million gallons of conventional jet fuel that GE Aviation currently consumes annually at its US testing facilities.

Also in the US, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) seeks to enhance energy security and environmental sustainability for aviation through alternative jet fuels. CAAFI is a coalition that focuses the efforts of commercial aviation to engage the emerging alternative fuels industry.

Fans of aviation biofuel may have been showing off its potential at events such as the 2013 Paris Air Show, but most of the initiatives to develop biofuels for aviation in the US and other countries including Brazil, are still in the laboratory stages of technological development. Although several initiatives have received approval for technical certification from the American Society for Testing and Materials—a U.S. body that certifies tests and materials—none of them can yet be considered commercial.

But Brazil has hidden strengths that – as elsewhere in the biofuels industry – mean it stands to emerge as global champion in the coming “battle for the skies.”

Most obviously, Brazil’s alternative energy industry relies on lower levels  of subsidy than elsewhere, thanks to a large installed base. (Bioenergy forms 30% of Brazil’s bio-energy matrix). What’s more, Brazil’s climate supports a wider range and more productive range of feedstocks than, say, US farmers can ever hope to cultivate.

The most promising potential feedstocks for jet biofuel are plants that contain sugars, starch, and oil, as well as residues such as lignocellulose, municipal solid wastes, and industrial waste  residues. Brazil is the world largest producer of sugarcane, second for soybeans, and has the lowest  cost of production of eucalyptus; therefore, it can competitively produce all the above listed classes of feedstock.

At this stage, these three crops can be considered the natural candidate feedstocks to start a jet biofuel industry in Brazil, depending on the conversion process.

“There is a large quantity of possible sources of raw materials in Brazil that are interesting for biofuel production for aviation,” said Mauro Kern, executive vice president of engineering and technology at Embraer, during the press conference held on the presentation of the conclusions of the study. “But there are other raw materials, such as camelina, Japtropha curcas, algae and residue that can make viable options.”

The two most common feedstock sources for making biofuels are plants rich in sugars and bio-derived oils.
Crops that are rich in sugars (such as sugar cane) can be processed to release their sugar content. This is fermented to make ethanol, which can be used directly as a petroleum substitute or additive. These fuels, known as first-generation biofuels, are typically not suitable for use in aircraft, as they do not have the necessary performance and safety attributes for modern
jet engine use.
Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 13.17.58
However, bio-derived oil, commonly sourced from plants such as soybeans, algae, jatropha, halophytes and camelina, is processed and can either be burned directly or converted by chemical processes to make high-quality jet and diesel fuels. These are known as second-generation biofuels.

In terms of carbon emissions, carbon dioxide absorbed by plants during the growth of the biomass is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon produced when the fuel is burned in a combustion engine – which is simply returning the CO2 to the atmosphere. This could mean biofuel might be approximately carbon neutral over its life cycle — were it not for  emissions produced during the production of biofuels.

Sugarcane, soybean and eucalyptus are cited as the three best candidates to use to begin to develop a biofuel industry for aviation in Brazil. This, however, will depend on the processes of conversion and refinement chosen, note the authors.

All these materials have been the object of intensive investigation under the FAPESP-sponsored Bioenergy Research  (BIOEN) programme for renewable fuels. The latest study is part of BIOEN which brings together more than 400 scientists, the majority of whom are in universities and research institutions in São Paulo State, in addition to approximately 100 researchers from several other countries.

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), also, conducts research on the domestication of Jatropha curcas and has begun to study babassu, whose oil is made up of acids with carbon chains that are considered ideal for the development biofuels for aviation.

Making Jatropha curcas and other plants, such as camelina and saccharine sorghum, feasible sources for the production of biofuels for aviation, requires additional research and development to increase the yield and reduce production costs, according to researchers who participated in the study.

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Next comes the issue of cost. Although Brazil has proven itself to be the world’s lowest-cost ethanol producer for teerrestrial transportation, this is not yet the case with other second-generation  aviation biofuel ingredients. “The cost of raw materials is a very important factor for the competitiveness of the biofuel. In the case of ethanol, sugarcane represents 70% of the production cost. In the case of biofuel, the raw material represents between 80% to 90%,” said Luiz Augusto Barbosa Cortez, professor of Unicamp, one of the coordinators of the study.

Brazil has spent years  battling domestic US farming interests pushing for higher subsidies and import barriers to protect their own higher-cost corn-based ethanol product from the cheaper latino alternative made from sugar cane. And of course,  Brazil has no wish to see a repeat performance in the skies of what happened on the road. There,  its gasoline substitute was for years locked out of US markets. By moving now, it plans to protect its future.

The report says: “substitution of petroleum in aviation represents a very important niche for sustainable biofuels. Brazil has a great opportunity in this area to become a global player. There are important challenges to be overcome to create the basis for this new emerging industry.  Brazil cannot afford not to participate.”

The report includes with a number of recommendations:

Feedstock Production

• agronomic research, particularly on non-traditional feedstocks;

• establish policies to create adequate conditions for better use of land;

• improve logistics infrastructure for feedstock transportation;

• evaluate the long term impact of biomass collection on soil water and biodiversity;

• evaluate existing available industrial waste residue feedstocks;

• establish sites that generate long-term data to support feedstock operation methodologies as  a platform for soil, water and biodiversity study. In addition, monitoring and measurement  against standards must be established;

• establish more rigorous law enforcement systems dealing with sustainability aspects of biofuels  production.

Refining Technologies

• process research on different identified pathways;

• establish pilot plants for most promising alternatives;

• establish demonstration and first-of-a-kind commercialization plants.

Biofuel Logistics and Certification

• prepare the Brazilian set of Regulations for accepting biofuels according to ASTM approval  process for synthetic kerosenes;

• develop and disseminate competence for aviation biofuel certification;

• organize a long term strategy plan for the production and distribution of jet biofuels.


• establish facilities to become the locus of scientific and commercialization activities pertaining  to the goals of this roadmap;

• observe closely and anticipate regulatory actions by ICAO;

• establish or regulate sustainability criteria to be met by aviation biofuels in the country, and  coordinate with emerging standards around the globe;

• establish a governmental long-term program for integrated use of biofuels in all transportation  modes;

• build up high level human capacity related to biofuels for aviation;

• establish policies to include small farmers and/or local communities in the jet biofuel  production chain.

You can read the full report here:

The Flight Path to Aviation—Biofuels in Brazil: Action Plan


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