Column: How algae could save the airline industry

Cirrus SR-20 sitting on the ramp at Morgantown Municipal Airport

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the annual number of airline passengers worldwide will increase to 8.2 billion by 2037. The predicted demand for air transportation is so staggering that Boeing has estimated that airlines across the globe will need to hire over 600,000 pilots within the next 20 years to keep up. The airline industry is on a mission to make the world increasingly connected and the demand for fuel is increasing exponentially because of it.

The future success of the airline industry as a whole could be hindered by a threat that has been looming for decades. It’s only a matter of time before we run out of the finite supply of fossil fuels found under the earth’s crust that power the great majority of modern aircraft. Many believe that we have less than 50 years to find an alternative energy supply before our global oil reserves run dry. 

As we continue to burn through this supply at an alarming rate, it becomes harder to ignore the effect aviation has on the environment. Aviation is believed to be responsible for around 3-4 percent of both CO2 and non-CO2 related global climate change.There will be both economic and environmental consequences for the airline industry and the world if aircraft remain reliant on fossil fuels. 

This is where biofuel fits in to the equation. Biofuel has the ability to bridge the gap between the use of fossil fuels and the eventual widespread utilization of sustainable electric aircraft. Biofuels are typically derived from natural and renewable materials like plant material, algae, or even animal waste. Biofuels are also carbon neutral meaning they make a minimal contribution to climate change.

 

Biofuel has already been scientifically proven to help reduce jet engine emissions. In a recent study, a team of researchers from NASA came to the conclusion that a 50-50 jet fuel and biofuel mixture could cut down on air transportation pollution by up to 70%. 

In order to make biofuel a realistic alternative or supplement to modern jet fuel, it must become more accessible to commercial operators. As it stands, there are only five airports in the world that have the facilities and equipment suitable for the consistent and regular distribution of biofuel: Los Angeles, Brisbane, Stockholm, Oslo, and Bergen. Until there is sufficient biofuel architecture at major airports around the world, it is unfair to expect airlines to invest in it.

Biofuel also hasn’t taken off like it was expected to because the price is not nearly as competitive in the market as fossil fuels are. Biofuel must become the standard rather than the alternative. Airlines and airports must fully embrace biofuel mixtures before the price can decrease and the use can rise like never before.

Making the switch over to biofuel could also provide the airline industry with the chance to escape the volatile oil and natural gas market. This shift could result in more long-term economic stability because the industry would no longer have to traverse the same peaks and valleys as the global market for nonrenewable resources.

Biofuel can have a profound and significant impact on the sustainability of aviation in the future as long as the aviation community can come together to support the research and development of the product as well as enhance the infrastructure that supports it.

 

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