Forget about revolutionary light-weight composite materials: a four-seater propeller plane is more likely to hold the key to the future of aviation. Or at least that's the hope of European aerospace and defense giant EADS.
The group, which owns Airbus, is showing off an aircraft powered by algae juice at the Farnborough Airshow this week. EADS (EURONEXT:FR:EAD) is betting that the small aircraft, which completed its first successful flight last month in Germany, can help make air travel kinder to the planet in the not too distant future.
As deadlines for the industry to cut its carbon emissions loom and environmental disasters like the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico remind the world of the perils of oil exploration, jet makers and airlines alike are more eager than ever to find alternatives.
'We absolutely need to find a plan B for the replacement of kerosene,' EADS Chief Technology Officer Jean Botti told MarketWatch in an interview on the sidelines of the air show.
'What we're doing on biofuels right now is a very promising way of getting to that point. The potential from the use of algae is the highest I have seen so far,' he said.
The advantages of algae over other types of biofuels, such as palm oil, are significant and help explain the enthusiasm it is generating.
First, algae don't compete with other crops for agricultural land and can even be grown in polluted water. Second, their production consumes large quantities of carbon dioxide, which is a big plus for an industry trying to become carbon-neutral by 2020. Third, algae can be blended with traditional kerosene without the engine or any pipes needing to be significantly modified.
The byproduct of algae production is a high-protein mixture that could eventually be sold for use in pharmaceutical or cosmetic products, thereby helping make the whole project more commercially viable. Last but not least, it has been estimated that algae produces up to 15 times more oil per square kilometer than other biofuel crops.
'What you want in this is to create an industry that will not be subsidized but self-sustaining. I don't want it to be like the production of milk in Europe.' EADS Chief Technology Officer Jean Botti.
Getting others on board
EADS would like to have a pilot program running within five years, perhaps on a route like Paris-Toulouse, Botti said. His long-term hope is for 10% of the global fleet to run on pure biofuels, or a blend of them, by 2030.
For that to happen, however, other industry players need to get involved, in part because that will help bring down the cost of producing algae, which is perhaps the biggest obstacle to its wider use at the moment.
EADS didn't want to disclose the price for algae fuel, but said it's more expensive than conventional fuel because it is produced only in very low quantities.
'It is clear that the price does not come close to industrially produced conventional kerosene,' an EADS spokesperson said. 'It is our goal to industrialize the production of biofuel and make it affordable for commercial purposes.'
Everyone in the industry wants to believe in a big future for biofuels, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade body representing the world's biggest airlines.
At an event last month, IATA's aviation environment director, Paul Steele, forecast in a presentation that 50% to 70% of jet fuel could be replaced by biofuels by 2035.
There is definitely interest from the airlines, according to Max Sukkhasantikul, analyst in the commercial aerospace and defense practice of consultancy Frost & Sullivan.
Nearly a dozen carriers have run experiments with biofuels including Deutsche Lufthansa (FRANKFURT:DE:LHA), British Airways (LONDON:UK:BAY) and Qatar Airways.
'The scientific evidence is there that biofuels can be used to power aircraft. Now the problem is the scale needed to make their use commercially viable,' he said.
'And from what I understand the supply of algae is more viable than any other alternative at the moment.'
Like Botti, Sukkhasantikul believes the tipping point is not far and the industry will eventually adopt a common standard on biofuels that will greatly accelerate its availability.
'It's a matter of educating the industry. A few golden words from Airbus and Boeing backing the technology and its use could step up quite rapidly,' Sukkhasantikul said.
In the wake of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies, which have had a scattershot approach to investing in biofuels so far, may be spurred to do more. Among the oil majors, Royal Dutch Shell and BP (LONDON:UK:BP.) have been most active in biofuels.
Still, not everyone believes the turnaround will be quick.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy published a report on algal biofuels acknowledging the technology holds promise to help meet the country's need for non-petroleum fuels, but highlighting that it is at an early stage and will require years of development to reach commercialization.
'What you want in this is to create an industry that will not be subsidized but self-sustaining,' said Botti of EADS. 'I don't want it to be like the production of milk in Europe.'