Boeing sees 'green diesel' in the future of air travel

Boeing is seeking to help airlines fly the skies in a more environmentally friendly way.

This week, the Chicago-based aviation giant reported that it is stepping up efforts to expand the use of sustainable aviation biofuel by seeking U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval for its aircraft to fly on “green diesel.” The proposed new source of aviation biofuel emits at least half the lifecycle carbon dioxide as traditional petroleum-based jet fuel, according to Boeing.

The announcement comes after Boeing researchers found that green diesel – a fuel derived from feedstock such as non-food plant oils, waste cooking oil and animal fats, and algae – is chemically similar to sustainable aviation biofuels that already are approved.

James Kinder, a fellow at Boeing Commercial Airplanes Propulsion Systems Division, said approval of green diesel would be “a major breakthrough in the availability of competitively priced, sustainable aviation fuel.”

According to the aircraft manufacturer, there is already about 600 million gallons of operating green diesel production capacity in the United States, Europe and Singapore. That’s enough to cover up to 1 percent of worldwide demand for commercial jet fuel. The wholesale cost, says Boeing, is competitive with petroleum jet fuel at about $3 a gallon.

Boeing is working with the FAA, engine manufacturers, green diesel producers and others to prepare a detailed report on green diesel as part of the federal regulatory approval process. If approved, green diesel would likely be blended with traditional jet fuel.

Boeing’s internal goal is to receive FAA approval this year, company spokeswoman Jessica Kowal told GreenBiz. A previous regulatory process for aviation biofuels produced from hydro-processed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) required two years before being approved in 2011. “We don’t think this will take as long,” said Kowal.

Boeing’s pursuit of FAA approval to fly on green diesel is the latest in a series of actions by aircraft manufacturers, airlines and engine makers to improve the sustainability of aircraft travel. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group – which includes Boeing, Airbus and 27 airlines – has the stated goal of achieving carbon-neutral growth in the airline industry by 2020 by accelerating the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuel.

Late last year, Boeing announced collaborations with Brazilian carrier GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes and South African Airways to develop sustainable biofuel supply chains in Africa and South America. The company also is involved in regional biofuel supply chain efforts in China, Japan, the Middle East, Australia, Europe and the United States.

The collaborations are aimed at identifying the most promising fuels and refining technologies to produce biofuels for aircraft that are sustainable and do not conflict with local food supplies, soil, water or air. Boeing has explored other alternative sources of sustainable aviation fuel as well, such as hydrogen fuel cells. 

However, according to Boeing’s Kowal, “We believe liquid fuels will power airplanes for the foreseeable future, and that’s why we are committed to finding alternatives such as green diesel.”

More than 1,500 passenger flights around the world using a mix of 50 percent biofuel already have occurred.

Image of fuel pump by Luis Louro via Shutterstock