BA acts quickly on waste biofuel

Airline forms partnership with US plant builder to buy fuel that produces 95% fewer gases

British Airways (BA), which is preparing to become the first airline to buy jet fuel from a planned waste-to-biofuels plant in east London, is expected to scale up the project if it is successful. The flag carrier is one of dozens of European airlines preparing for the introduction of the EU's emissions trading scheme, which will charge carriers for their carbon dioxide emissions on all flights to and from the region. The scheme will begin taxing aviation emissions in 2012.

BA has partnered with Solena of the US, which is building the US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) plant in London. Construction should begin in 2012 and the plant become operational in 2014. BA has agreed to buy its annual production of biosyngas, which is expected to be equal to 60.5 million litres of biofuel. The plant will also produce electricity to power its operations, with some being sold back to the national power grid, and naphtha, a petrochemical feedstock.

The Solena technology takes conventional domestic waste, treats it at high temperature and turns the resulting gas into jet fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process, a set of chemical reactions that convert a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons. The biofuel contains 95 per cent fewer greenhouse gases but could cost more than conventional jet fuel as a result of the method used to produce it.

Jonathon Counsell, the head of environment at BA, said the project could be extended across the country. The plant will take in 500,000 tonnes of waste a year, about 2.5 per cent of the annual output of the city of London. At least 20 other cities across the UK produce between 500,000 and 1 million tonnesa year, Mr Counsell said. "We are trying to understand the economics," he said. "The questions we're asking are, what is optimum location? Should the plant be close to the waste, or close to airports? Also, is it best to have one site, or many smaller sites around the world?"

Last year, synthetic fuels derived from the Fischer-Tropsch process became the first to be approved for use in commercial aviation by ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, an international standards organisation. This led Qatar Airways, the flag carrier of the country with the world's largest gas reserves, to conduct a test flight with gas-to-liquids jet fuel.

Although the fuel is derived from natural gas, it produces significantly fewer greenhouse gases than conventional jet fuel. But other types of biofuels are expected to be approved soon. Etihad Airways is teaming with Boeing, Honeywell and Masdar to locally cultivate salicornia, a saltwater plant bearing oils that can be processed into fuel. ASTM is expected to approve these fuels in the next few years. Fuel derived from algae, widely perceived to offer the best prospects for the future, could take another five to 10 years to be approved, Mr Counsell said.

Researchers are experimenting with various strains to produce algae-based fuels on a commercial scale.