Sustainability in Aviation Fuel: Palm Oil is Part of the Solution

Dr Yusof Basiron

For many years, the aviation industry has been criticized for its high carbon GHG emission. Of the total global emissions, 56 % comes from burning of fossil fuels and 17 % from agriculture. The aviation industry alone contributes 649,000,000 tonnes of GHG emission annually which represents 2 to 3 % of the total globally! The Boeing Company and other aviation industry operators held a Forum in Kuala Lumpur recently to explore new sources of renewable biofuels for the aviation industry.

In comparison, calculations reveal that emissions from the oil palm industry are indeed very small. The world oil palm area of 14 million hectares is only 0.25% of global agricultural land. Therefore, the GHG emission from the oil palm industry is 0.25% x 17% or 0.04% of the total global GHG emission. At the country level, Malaysia’s oil palm cultivated area of 4.85 million hectares represents 34.6% of the world’s oil palm cultivated area and hence its GHG footprint is 34.6% x 0.04 % or 0.014% of the global GHG emission. Even doubling the cultivated area for oil palm in Malaysia would see a negligible increase of its GHG footprint to 0.028% of global emission.

The negligibly small GHG footprint of the oil palm industry has attracted the aviation industry operators (hence their presence in Kuala Lumpur for the Forum) to consider the use of palm oil biofuel to help reduce emission levels from the aviation industry. As indicated above, doubling the production of palm oil in Malaysia will not add much to the carbon footprint of the oil palm industry, instead, it will provide 18 million tonnes or 8.6 billion gallons more of potential jet biofuel. Total consumption of aviation fuel per year is estimated at 70 billion gallons. A 12 % replacement of the world aviation biofuel can be achieved if the Malaysian production can be doubled to cater to this demand.

The road map for inclusion of biofuel in aviation fuel begins modestly with an initial blend share of 1 % by 2015. This could be increased gradually with an improvement of 1% additional biofuel in the fuel blend annually so that GHG emissions will be maintained at current levels despite exponential growth in future global air travels. Malaysian palm oil potentially fits the road map due to its ability to replace a moderate (12%) percentage of world aviation biofuel demand. Palm oil from other sources could also be considered until a long term plan by the aviation industry to meet its target replacement of 50% blend of biofuel in aviation fuel is achieved.

Such large demand for bio-renewable aviation fuel can be supplemented if the biomass generated by the oil palm industry can be harnessed for conversion into aviation biofuel. Palm oil makes up only 10 % of the biomass produced by the oil palm tree. The remaining 90% (dry weight basis) can be partly converted into biofuel using BTL technology or bio-refinery which is being developed rapidly around the world.

Only palm oil can provide a solution for practical consideration. Other oilseeds cannot produce the quantities envisaged because of the inherent low yield per hectare per year of between 5 to 11 times less than that of palm oil. Figure 1 below shows countries capable of supplying excess vegetable oil into the world market which are limited to Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil producers. With doubling of production through productivity and hectarage expansion, and employing other palm biomass for further conversion into aviation fuel, the availability could well meet the future target of having 50% blend of biofuel into the aviation fuel mixture.

Figure 1

Palm oil meets the certification criteria for sustainability as many producers in Malaysia have volunteered to participate in the certification schemes and have obtained their certificates from certifying bodies such as the RSPO and ISCC. A minor obstacle to the successful implementation of the aviation biofuel plan is the relatively high cost of biofuel in comparison to petroleum derived aviation fuel. Lack of an excess supply from other vegetable oils and a high demand for palm oil for food will cause market forces to price palm oil above petroleum fuel. Otherwise, palm oil will be burned as fuel. This will ensure that its price will remain above the price of petroleum fuel and petroleum price will be the floor price for palm and other vegetable oils.

With the planned expansion of oil palm production, the necessary increase in supply to meet the needs of the aviation industry can be achieved. The food versus fuel debate does not apply as the main consideration is which profitable crop to plant on a scarce available agricultural land (large areas of degraded land not under forest reserves) where oil palm can be grown. Non-food oil crops such as jatropha can also be grown on degraded land but it yields only 20 % that of oil palm and is far more expensive to produce thus making it a much less attractive solution.

Consumers worldwide must be willing to pay the cost to reduce carbon GHG emission from the aviation industry. Plans by EU to impose carbon tax on the aviation sector are a step in the right direction. It is imperative that the money raised goes to compensate farmers who toil to produce the extra supply of raw material for the aviation fuel industry. Currently, much emphasis has been placed on the certification process for sustainability that the administrative charge consumes up to 80% of the money raised to incentivize the production of renewable biofuel. Ironically, the cost for employing auditors and paying for membership fee of certification bodies is more than the rate of compulsory research funding imposed on the Malaysian palm oil industry!

New opportunities for an increased supply of palm oil based aviation biofuel can be realised through more research and allocation of funds. However, if the cost of certification is higher than the investment in research, and if the carbon tax benefits only the bureaucracy, this will result in a slow development of aviation biofuel from oil palm sources. Development of aviation biofuel from other vegetable oils will be next to impossible. Oil palm is the only viable solution in the long term.

The choice is limited for the aviation industry. It cannot harness hydro, wind or solar power to fly jet planes. Most other plant biomass has low output to input energy ratio of 3:1 compared to 9:1 for oil palm. Oil palm is the best and only choice so far until miracles occur or algae technology becomes successful. Even petroleum fuel is not the most viable choice in the long term; its supply is finite and the topping point curve (Fig 2) shows that supply will start to decline in a few years from its peak. By then almost everything will be expensive except sustainably produced raw materials such as palm oil if future development in production capacity is well planned with adequate upfront investment in R & D.


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