True to the old adage, "better late than never," the aviation sector is readying a rapid transition to sustainable fuels to fight off the threat of climate change by reducing carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

Committing to a 20-year time frame, the commercial sector, despite a huge uptick in air traffic is bracing for a change to support the climate change mitigation efforts.

The delay in adoption of renewable energy by the sector was abetted by a lack of incentives and the lure of low oil prices.

"It's very urgent to develop these alternative fuels," said Michel Wachenheim of International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations who added that the current scenario is not satisfactory.

The goal is tough and the aviation sector has to tap many options in reaching that lofty end.

Montreal Meeting

The transition will start with partial replacement of jet fuel with biofuels as favored by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has called a conference of experts on Feb. 15 and 16 to address the problem.

Other options to cut emissions include flying of lighter, fuel-efficient aircraft and optimization of flight schedules and keeping jet engines switched off at the tarmac.

In meeting the challenge of achieving the 20-year deadline, there is a long way to go as biofuel is yet to be produced on an industrial scale. There are examples of fermentation process followed by biotech firm Amyris and French company Total trying to produce sustainable biofuels.

Taking up the challenge, 25 airlines will be operating more than 5,000 flights using jet fuel mixed with alternative fuels on a trial basis in 2017.

Gerard Ostheimer, a scientist attached to Sustainable Energy For All of the United Nations said, higher price per ton of carbon could push development of biofuels on a large scale.

He called for policies that reward fuels with reduced carbon intensity.

Alternate Fuels

The emerging aviation bio fuels will have starches, sugars, and biomass sources like oils and lignocellulose and plants as main sources. Seaweed as a source of fuel is still under study.

Nate Brown, an official with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reminded that more work needs to be done before large-scale production of alternative jet fuel starts.

The vital parameters that must satisfy for faster adoption of alternative fuels are safety, performance, and costs comparable to conventional fuels.

Also, they have to be consistent and reliable in terms of supply and accompany a lot of environmental benefits.

Cathay Pacific Goes Green

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific is pioneering the push toward for biofuels. It will be making a trial with a biofuel derived from landfill rubbish and use it on long haul flights to cut emissions.

It has already invested in Fulcrum BioEnergy — the U.S.-based sustainable biofuel developer that converts municipal waste into aviation fuel.

Cathay flights emanating from the U.S. and terminating at Hong Kong will use a combination of conventional jet fuel and biofuels from 2019 and cut emissions by 80 percent.

"Aviation biofuels will play a key role for Cathay and the aviation industry's quest for lower emissions," Cathay Pacific biofuel manager Jeff Ovens said.

Infrastructure For Biofuel

Meanwhile, Boeing, Port of Seattle, and Alaska Airlines jointly released a study after identifying the best infrastructure options for delivering aviation biofuel at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

It examined 30 sites around Washington to support the mixing, storage, and delivery infrastructure to ensure supply Sea-Tac Airport with 50 million gallons per year.

The mission aims to power every flight at Sea-Tac with sustainable aviation biofuel.

"We needed this comprehensive analysis to confirm that we can offer commercial airlines feasible and sustainable delivery options while reducing our environmental footprint and being a good neighbor to surrounding communities," said Port of Seattle Commissioner John Creighton.

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