Aviation fuel sustainably produced from the mallee tree in Western Australia could begin powering jet aircraft by 2021 and create new opportunities for farmers, a study says.
The Future Farm Industries Cooperative Centre (CRC) study found farmed production of mallee for aviation biofuel was a significant, potential enterprise for the agricultural sector that could deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.
“However, it will not be so big that it is likely to displace food (eg wheat, canola, sheep meat) and other fibre (eg wool) production, which are the major commodities of Australian dryland agriculture,” the report said.
CRC research director John McGrath said production of the mallee tree for aviation biofuel would support other farming activity.
“Mallee integrates well with farm crop and livestock operations and can protect and enhance biodiversity, and contributing to rebalancing water tables,” Dr McGrath said in a statement.
The two-year study was commissioned by Airbus and included local partners such as Virgin Australia and other renewable energy players.
While the current cost of aviation biofuel from mallee was too high and thus uncompetitive with Jet A1, the report found the gap was narrowing.
“Mallee biomass cost could be competitive by the 2021 start date for this venture,” the report said.
“Further technological innovation and productivity gains can be reasonably assumed, and capital and operating costs will reduce as the value chain scales up to other regions.”
The report said the cost of aviation biofuel could reduce from $1.70 a litre currently to somewhere between $0.80-$1.10 a litre.
Meanwhile, petroleum-based jet fuel could increase from $0.80 a litre to $1.50 a litre, given rising oil prices.
“When biojet is competitive with fossil jet fuel the mallee biojet supply will be profitable and the biomass price offered to farmers will be attractive enough to see as much as 500,000 hectares planted to mallee belts across Australia,” the report said.
“This would supply five per cent of Australia’s aviation fuel.”
Virgin Australia Regional Airlines group executive Merren McArthur said the report showed mallee jet fuel was “a more sustainable option than our current fossil-based fuel supply”.
Renewable Oil Corporation (ROC) intended to build biofuel processing plants in WA, with a commercial prototype likely to be located near plantation forest residue areas while mallee supply wass developed in the nearby farming region, the report said.
A second fully commercial plant was likely to be at Katanning in the Great Southern region of WA.
The first regional plant was expected to employ 40 people and bring about $30 million of turnover. This could rise tenfold as production scaled up, the report said.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) target for the industry is to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020.
Moreover, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a target of 10 per cent alternative fuels by 2017 and aspirations to build an aircraft that produced no emissions within 50 years.
Aviation biofuel from mallee would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent compared with Jet A1.
Airbus new energies program manager Frederic Eychenne said the findings were an important step towards achieving carbon neutral growth for the aviation industry.