Biojet: Developing a Western Canada solution to reduce emissions from the airline sector

While it’s likely petroleum-based jet fuels will continue to prevail in the airline business for many more decades, an initiative launched by Calgary-based WestJet is aimed at shifting to a blend of lower-carbon jet fuels that would allow the airline to lower its environmental footprint, while also creating a market for forest and agriculture residue, that would give a boost to Western Canada’s economy.

The WestJet biojet project is part of a portfolio of innovative initiatives stewarded by the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), a leading-edge collaborative platform of innovators and influencers working together to develop and refine ideas to help Alberta thrive in an increasingly competitive and carbon-constrained energy context.

In November 2018, the EFL hosted the “Mobility in a Low Carbon Future” workshop. A report from the event can be found here .

The workshop focused on ideas and projects to ensure that the province’s economy continues to benefit from the global shift to low-carbon forms of transportation. One of the more ambitious projects being advanced in the workshop was the WestJet-led biojet project.

Geoff Tauvette, EFL fellow and director of Environment and Fuel with WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline, said the initiative is worthwhile, even though the airline sector’s environmental footprint isn’t as large as some might expect.

“The aviation sector is responsible for two per cent of global emissions now, but we know that more people are flying and so aviation continues to grow,” he said. “We need to look at ways to prevent our share of total emissions from growing further and, at this time, one of the best ways of doing this is by using biofuel.”

To advance the biojet project, earlier this year, WestJet, working with Alberta Innovates, launched the WestJet Aviation Biofuel Challenge, a western Canadian-based approach towards lowering emissions from the sector. But, given that biojet is in demand by airlines across the world, it is likely that, if successful, it would be adopted on a wider scale.

Tauvette, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering, and more than 20 years of experience in environmental and fuel management in the airline sector, cites a number of co-operative efforts between the companies in the sector. For instance, Canada’s major airlines have invested in common fuel storage and de-icing facilities in Canada and the U.S. to ensure cost efficient delivery at airports.

But there are more, wider connections between the airlines.

The global airline industry was one of the first to agree on a sectoral climate change plan, including commitments to improve annual fuel delivery and to reduce emissions by 50 per cent (below 2005 levels) by 2050. In Canada, since 2005, the carriers have been working with the federal government on a voluntary agreement to report and take actions aimed at reducing airline emissions.

“Along with those involvements came the federal government’s decision to put a price on carbon,” said Tauvette.

WestJet has already responded to the challenge, reducing the emissions intensity from its aircraft by close to 50 per cent from 2000. It did so by replacing older aircraft with more fuel-efficient jets, such as the 787 Dreamliner. The Dreamliner is forecasted to be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than aircraft of a similar size.

“When we look at the future, there are many opportunities to reduce emissions,” he said.

For instance, recently a group of WestJet employees stripped one of its aircraft of materials on board and found ways to reduce weight, such as adjusting its food and refreshment offerings to the type and length of flights.

Other investments include a GPS-like guidance system for aircraft, which allow them to reduce kilometres when they land. Meanwhile, the manufactures, such as Boeing and Airbus, continue to search for ways to make their aircraft more efficient. They are experimenting with both electric-powered and hybrid models, for example.

But, at this point, Tauvette said the belief is that those options are far into the future, especially for long-haul aircraft, given the propulsion to weight benefits of petroleum-based jet fuel.

“We think the biojet option is still our best approach,” he said.

There are several pathways to make biojet options that are approved for use by the airline sector and these fuels need to meet the strict safety and quality standards set by the American Society of Testing and Materials. Biojet can be made from a variety of materials, including oats, biomass and municipal solid waste.

“We think we can achieve a 50 per cent to 80 per cent improvement in carbon efficiency,” he said.

The emphasis has been on using sources that do not impact food security, since that would not meet the strict sustainability standards that the airlines have agreed to.

The biofuels that are chosen need to be readily available in Western Canada, need to accomplish the goal of lowering overall carbon emissions, can be used on a large scale and must be affordable.

Fuel constitutes as much as 30 per cent of the operating costs of an average airline, so it’s important to make the option economically viable, he said.

WestJet and other airlines can also purchase carbon credits to lower their overall emissions, but WestJet would prefer to rely on the lower-carbon approach, such as Canadian-made biojet.

The company and Alberta Innovates, which is financed by the provincial government, have launched the WestJet Aviation Biofuel Challenge to find the right biofuel conversion options that might work in Alberta. They’ve moved to Phase 2, which will involve choosing a potential winner from a handful of the most viable options.

“It will be a regional economic opportunity,” he said.

For example, one of the most promising biofuel options is derived from forestry residue and Alberta, in particular, has a significant potential to tap that source.

So there are economic benefits for the province and the region from taking the biojet approach, while also having the potential to reduce emissions overall from the sector.

Pong Leung, a part of EFL’s leadership team and an organizer of the Mobility in a Low Carbon Future workshop, noted that the event attracted participants from the public and private sectors wanting to help Alberta prepare for an increasingly low-carbon world.

In addition to the biofuel initiative, other initiatives explored related to lithium for electric vehicles from Alberta oil wells, hydrogen from Alberta’s hydrocarbons, biofuels from Alberta’s forestry and agriculture residue, and harnessing the province’s increasingly global renown in artificial intelligence to build smart mobility choices in cities.

“Given what’s going on around the world, what does low-carbon mobility mean for Alberta in the future?” said Leung. “This is a key question on a lot of people’s minds, and [which is] driving innovation.”

For more on these initiatives and others, aimed at helping the province transition to that lower-carbon future, visit the EFL’s initiatives page.

Click here for a copy of Low Carbon Mobility: Transportation in a Low Carbon Future.

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