By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – Brazil is poised to play a significant role in the global aviation biofuels industry. A report prepared by Boeing, Embraer and FAPESP, under Unicamp’s coordination, has identified the gaps and the pathways for the country to be a major player in this market: more research in the areas of raw materials and biofuel production, distribution logistics, and adaptation of legislation, among others. The three partners released the report on June 10, 2013, during an event held at FAPESP.
The “Flight Path to Aviation—Biofuels in Brazil: Action Plan” will guide research projects sponsored by FAPESP and the two aviation companies under the auspices of a cooperation agreement signed by the three institutions, with the objective of stimulating research and development of biofuels for aviation in Brazil. The study is part of FAPESP’s Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN), which brings together more than 400 scientists, the majority of which are in universities and research institutions in São Paulo State, in addition to approximately 100 researchers from several other countries.
The document is the result of a series of eight workshops held between May and December 2012 in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Piracicaba, Campinas, São José dos Campos, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília and involving the aviation sector, universities and research institutes, among other participants.
The major scientific and technological challenge around the world, according to researchers, is the development of a biofuel, based on any biomass produced on a commercial scale, that has a competitive cost and can be mixed with conventional aviation kerosene without requiring modification of the motors and turbines of the current fleet of aircraft or the aeronautics fuel distribution system.
One of the report’s main conclusions is that in Brazil, there is a variety of raw materials available, from plants that contain sugar, starch and oil, in addition to residues such as lignocellulose, solid urban residues and industrial exhaustion gases, that have proven promising for the production of biokerosene.
Sugarcane, soybean and eucalyptus are cited as the three best candidates to use to begin to develop a biofuel industry for aviation in the country. This, however, will depend on the processes of conversion and refinement chosen, note the authors.
“There is a large quantity of possible sources of raw materials in Brazil that are interesting for biofuel production for aviation, such as sugarcane, soybean and eucalyptus,” 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 Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), for example, 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 that participated in the study.
“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.
“Low productivity in raw material production for fabrication of biofuels is an issue,” said Cortez, who is also a member of FAPESP’s Adjunct Coordination of Special Programs.
According to Celso Lafer, president of FAPESP, the project is an important step toward the development of joint research between companies and universities. “FAPESP has actively participated in the creation of a fruitful relationship between universities, research institutes and companies, supporting partnership and innovation through diverse programs, and the study for development of aviation biofuels in Brazil will certainly be a mark in this relationship.”
“The study shows the possibility of us doing cooperative projects between universities and companies and learning, discovering things that are interesting for the two sides,” affirmed Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director.
Conversion and refining technology
In the report, the researchers also analyzed several conversion and refinement technologies, such as gasification, rapid pyrolysis, solvent-enhanced liquefaction, enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulosic and lignocellulosic biomass, oligomerization of alcohol for aviation fuel, hydroprocessed ester and fatty acids, and the fermentation of sugars and wastes (solid urban residue, combustible gases, industrial residue) in alcohols, hydrocarbons and lipids.
All these technologies have potential, and in Brazil, several have been tested to produce biofuels used in demonstration flights in Brazil and abroad, noted the authors.
Combined with raw materials, these technologies form a grid of 13 possible technological pathways cited in the report as feasible alternatives for the production of aviation biofuel in the medium term.
“This combination of varieties of raw materials with the varied processes that can be adopted create spectacular opportunities,” said Kern.
According to the executive, most of the initiatives to develop biofuels for aviation in Brazil and other countries 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 be considered commercial.
“In addition to technical difficulties, we need to face questions of economic feasibility and to show the environmental benefits, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. More research, development and distribution are needed to establish commercial refinement techniques and the distribution of biofuel for aviation,” the report reads.
Challenges of aviation
The aviation sector, which contributes 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, is facing the challenge of cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels, according to standards established by the International Air Transport Association.
To reduce consumption of biofuels and greenhouse gas emissions, the manufacturers of airplanes seek to increase the operational efficiency of their aircraft by developing more modern and efficient motors and aerodynamic optimizations, using structures and lighter metallic alloys in projects for jets. Still, with the strong expansion of air transport and the increase in the aviation fleet circulating in the world, these measures have been insufficient.
According to data from the report, in 2010, the Brazilian aviation sector, which is growing faster than the global average, transported approximately 71 million passengers and 870,000 tons of air cargo inside and outside the country. Projections indicate that Brazil will be the fourth largest domestic traffic market in the world by 2014.
“The aeronautics sector established ambitious targets for CO2 emissions, and there are several manners to reach them,” said Donna Hrinak, president of Boeing Brasil. “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.”
To date, the experience in Brazil in the development of biofuels, including fuels for autos and for agricultural aviation, have been associated with adapting engines to the fuel.
“Unlike what happened under Proálcool [the federal government program for stimulating biofuel production], during which car engines had to be adapted to the new fuel, for aviation biofuel, the idea is for them to be absolutely compatible with the current fuel, so that no modifications of aircraft or distribution infrastructure will be necessary,” compares Kern.
In the opinion of Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a professor at Universidade Federal de Itajubá (Unifei) and one of the coordinators of the study, aviation biofuel is emerging in very different conditions than in the auto market. “There is a global demand for biofuels for aviation that is already in place, which will ensure the program has consistency and continuity. That was not the case with other biofuels,” he compared.
The study Flight Path to Aviation—Biofuels in Brazil: Action Plan can be accessed at www.fapesp.br/publicacoes/flightpath-to-aviation-biofuels-in-brazil-action-plan.pdf.