Boeing pilots the birth of biofuel for aviation's sustainable growth

Collaboration with partners around the world cruises from first test flight to daily use at four airports in less than a decade.

September 28, 2018 in Our Environment

Jim Kinder (left) and J.P. Belieres have led Boeing’s technical efforts to develop sustainable aviation fuel for the past decade, working with industry stakeholders to gain approval for five types of biofuel.

Paul McElroy

With help from Boeing, Virgin Atlantic flew the first test flight in 2008. Boeing then began developing a fuel made from bio-derived oils and waste animal fats that could be blended directly with petroleum fuel without modifying engines, airplanes or fuel systems.

Two years of test results and rigorous reviews were provided to airframe and engine manufacturers.

“Safety is aviation’s number one priority,” Belieres said. “The OEMs had to be sure these new fuels wouldn’t harm the engine or airframe.”

Called HEFA (for hydro-processed fatty acid esters and free fatty acids), the biofuel performs better than jet fuel. Higher energy density means less fuel is needed and HEFA reduces particulate emissions. Scientific studies have shown that all biofuels reduce life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80 percent compared to petroleum fuel. Biofuel can also be made from household waste, forest residue and industrial gases.

More than 140,000 passenger flights have flown on a blend of jet fuel and biofuel, but a scalable, affordable supply is still needed. The industry is developing new fuels, using sustainable fuels that are currently focused on ground transportation and co-processing bio-feedstock with petroleum feedstock.

“Airlines have told us that if cost-competitive sustainable aviation fuels are available, they will use them,” said Sean Newsum, director of Commercial Airplanes environmental strategy. “We’re working across Boeing and the industry to enable that.”

By Paul McElroy