Don’t Rubbish This New “Wastefuel” Way to Fly
British Airways has set up Green Sky with US biofuel firm Solena, which aims to build a plant capable of taking thousands of tonnes of rubbish from east London every year and converting it into enough jet fuel for all its flights from London City airport two times over.
Danny Fortson for the Sunday Times in The Australian (20 July 2010):
WILLIE Walsh has seen the future, and it’s in the smelly depths of your bin.
The chief executive of British Airways has many problems on his plate: a pound stg. 3.7 billion ($6.4bn) pension hole, striking unions and annual losses of pound stg. 530 million.
But it is banana peel, rotten tomatoes, coffee grounds and cardboard that he believes hold the key to the carrier’s future.
Walsh will use this week’s Farnborough Air Show to unveil a project that could set BA fair to fly into a future where pollution is taxed and oil is expensive.
BA has set up Green Sky with US biofuel firm Solena which aims to build a plant capable of taking thousands of tonnes of rubbish from east London every year and converting it into enough jet fuel for all its flights from London City airport two times over.
Jonathon Counsell, BA’s head of environment, said: “This is a proof-of-concept type project. We hope that eventually there will be many plants like this around the world.”
BA is not doing this out of the goodness of its heart. Airlines face a bleak future. Last year will, in the words of Giovanni Bisignani, head of industry trade group IATA, “go down into the history books as the worst year the industry has ever seen”. It rounded off a decade in which airlines accumulated $US47bn in total losses.
From 2012, airlines flying in to and out of Europe will be forced to pay for every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted over 2005 levels to comply with the European Union’s carbon trading scheme. And the price of jet fuel, the single biggest cost for an airline, is expected to rise in line with oil.
In January last year, Walsh broke ranks with the rest of the industry by declaring BA would halve its carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. The move was followed by rivals.
Airlines have only one practical option: biofuels. Solena chief executive Robert Do said: “Air transport doesn’t have the same options that carmakers do. You can’t go hybrid, or plug (aeroplanes) in. The only option is to look at alternatives to jet fuel from oil.”
Some carriers such as KLM and Virgin Atlantic have begun experimenting using biofuels blended with conventional jet kerosene. But the infrastructure required for significant biofuel production, from crops to refineries to re-engineered engines, is still a long way off.
The Solena project tackles one key obstacle: feedstock. The idea of using large areas of arable land for the production of jet fuel has many critics.
Waste, however, is another matter. London produces 10,000 tonnes a day. The Solena plant would need 1500 tonnes daily, about 60 lorry loads. For waste firms it is an attractive proposition. Soaring landfill taxes mean they will pay Solena to take it off their hands.
It sounds simple.
It’s not. The technology that turns the muck into fuel originated in the US space program.
When NASA needed to test heat-shield materials that would protect a space capsule from the extreme temperatures on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, conventional combustion failed. Once the temperature reached about 1200C, the metal conductors melted.
A scientist named Salvador Camacho came up with the solution. He replaced the metal between the two electrodes — think of the bit that gets red when you turn on the toaster — with ionised gas. The plasma torch can provide a constant source of heat at up to 14,000C.
This is the key to Solena’s technology. “In low-temperature processes you lose carbon through the ash and tar it produces,” said Do. “Using plasma allows us to get 40 to 45 per cent more of the carbon out of the feedstock. It’s highly efficient, so we can use almost any type of source — whether it’s woodchips or banana peels. And in London the only abundantly available feedstock is waste.”
Most of the gas molecules generated from the process will be converted into liquid jet fuel through a process called Fischer Tropsch, a technology that has been used to convert coal into gas. At capacity the plant would produce 74.6 litres of jet fuel a year, just under 2 per cent of BA’s needs, which would then be blended with conventional fuel.
Some gas would be used to fire a turbine, which would provide the power for the plant.
Excess electricity would be sold to the grid and because it is renewable power it would fetch a premium. The other byproduct, bionaptha, could be used to make plastics.
Solena still has a big hill to climb, however. The plan calls for a plant over 6.5ha with constant lorry traffic, and it has yet to apply for planning permission.
Do is confident he will get approval. “We’ve been working closely with the Greater London Authority, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor, has been very supportive,” he said.
The firm has hired environmental consultancy Arcadis to help it get planning consent.
The other question mark is money. Green Sky needs pound stg. 230m to build the plant. Solena is in the process of bringing in new private equity backers but also needs considerable project finance. BA has agreed to take the fuel for a decade, but won’t be taking a stake in the venture.
The rest of the industry, meanwhile, is keeping a close eye on the plant’s progress.
Today there are about 18,900 airliners in the world. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that aviation causes about 3.5 per cent of the man-made effects on the weather. New aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 are more fuel efficient, but the gains will be more than wiped out by the industry’s growth.