Energy, Environment, and Economic Development: Exploring Georgia’s Aviation Biofuels Potential
The State of Georgia’s abundant natural resources produce tens of billions of dollars of revenue in commodities every year. Could biomass for renewable liquid aviation fuels soon become the state’s new cash crop? A recent workshop hosted by Georgia Tech brought together more than 60 experts, representing all aspects of the biofuels value chain, to explore the potential role Georgia and the Southeast could play in achieving commercial-scale production of aviation biofuels.
Facing increasing environmental concerns and emerging emissions regulations, the commercial aviation industry is looking with renewed interest at advanced biofuels as a means of diversifying their fuel supply and reducing their environmental impact. The workshop, sponsored by the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Farm to Fly 2.0 Coalition, and the Georgia Centers of Innovation, engaged key stakeholders from industry, academia, government, and NGO organizations to discuss and assess promising biomass feedstock resources that could provide second-generation or ‘drop-in’ replacements for petroleum-based jet fuel.
“These kinds of discussions are really important in gathering information on production methods, performance, and the potential of various Southeastern source materials to provide sufficient quantities to meet demand,” said Professor Valerie Thomas, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the School of Public Policy and one of the faculty coordinators of the event. “We want to concentrate resources toward the scale-up of the most the technically and economically viable opportunities.”
Nationally, the Farm to Fly initiative aims to establish supply chains throughout the United States that could support the goal of producing one billion gallons of sustainable jet biofuel for use by airlines by 2018. The U.S. airline industry currently uses 23 billion gallons of jet fuel annually and globally was responsible for 777 million tons of carbon emissions in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Department (DOE). Fuel specifications for aviation fuels are very stringent, and advanced liquid biofuels are currently the only viable low-carbon option for traditional jet fuel.
Georgia’s nationally recognized research institutions and millions of acres of plant, timberland, agricultural resources, have placed the state on the map for research and production of biofuels.
Georgia's unparalleled combination of abundant natural resources, clean-technology innovation, processing industries, and robust transportation systems, position the state to play an integral role in the development of an aviation biofuels industry, said Tim Lieuwen, executive director of the Strategic Energy Institute.
The state also possesses a wealth of other underutilized resources that could significantly expand the state’s bioenergy production capacity.
Logging residues and urban wood wastes, such as limbs, right-of-way clearings, and tree removals; diseased and storm-damaged trees; and commercially undesirable small-diameter trees could provide affordable source materials in significant quantities for biofuel production.
Throughout Georgia and the Southeastern region, research and demonstration projects are exploring the viability of new source materials in the production of ethanol and other biofuels.
The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that perennial grasses, such as miscanthus, switchgrass, and napier grass in conservation buffer zones of the Southeastern coastal plains regions of Georgia could potentially provide 2.2-2.9 teragrams (1 teragram is a million metric tons) of bio-feedstock material for biofuel production.
Byproducts from peanut processing, such as peanut oil and meal, were discussed as another largely untapped supply of source material that could be recovered and recycled for biofuel production, creating a new market for low-value products and agricultural waste. A pilot project is planned in early 2016 to explore the economic viability of utilizing peanut oil for jet fuel and diesel production.
The Andrew Young Foundation is sponsoring a pilot project in Louisiana to explore commercial-scale production of ethanol, using a small, aquatic plant called duckweed. The rapidly growing plant, found on the surface of bodies of fresh water and wetlands throughout the South, doubles its mass every 48 hours, doesn’t require high-value land for cultivation, and can be fertilized with organic waste materials instead of expensive synthetic fertilizers.
The business case for these biomass fuel options as a gallon-for-gallon replacement for jet fuel will depend not only on their ability to overcome the technical challenges of producing high-quality biofuels in a cost and energy-efficient manner but also on their ability to address the complex social and environmental challenges associated with large-scale production. A panel discussion, led by Alice Favero, a professor in the School of Public Policy and a faculty coordinator of the event, and University of Georgia Professor Dalia Abbas, addressed the barriers and opportunities in effectively evaluating and mitigating the environmental footprint of biofuel alternatives. The environmental impact of biofuels varies widely based on a number of factors, including local ecological conditions, farming practices, water demand, and land use. As discussed by Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials has developed voluntary certification standards to address sustainability concerns. The standards establish baseline criteria for the cultivation and processing of biomaterials that mitigate potential risks associated with biodiversity, soil, air, and water quality, as well as social and economic conditions of local communities. The panel discussed that while the expense of auditing and reporting presents some risks in reducing the number of potential producers, certification can offer significant benefits in differentiating different types of biofuels.
“Improving our ability to identify and quantify the social, environmental, and economic benefits and costs, is critical for not only determining the relative value of each biofuel option but for competitive comparison with other low-carbon transport technologies,” said Favero.
Significant advances have been made and will continue to be made in converting biomass to aviation biofuels, but the industry has not yet proven its viability on a commercial basis without market and government incentives. Sharing knowledge and best practices is an important first step toward creating an environment where a competitive aviation biofuels industry could flourish. Matthew Realff, a professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a faculty coordinator of the event, said the benefits of developing a sustainable aviation biofuels industry for Georgia extend far beyond aviation.
“A robust commercial market for aviation biofuels could serve as a catalyst for creating jobs, generating economic growth, and accelerating innovation in clean technology,” said Realff.
Over the next 12 months, workshop attendees aim to define an actionable roadmap for the development and commercialization of an aviation biofuels industry for the Southeast.