Green Airplanes: Benefits of Biofuel for Everyone

by ‐ Tags: green living, alternative energy

If you think you have a low carbon footprint, think again. Do you love to travel? Every flight you take severely impacts your carbon footprint, so much so that an energy-saving, bike-to-work, alternative-energy-using, vegan environmentalist who hops on a few flights per year may actually have a more negative impact on the environment than an SUV-driving carnivore who has never left the country or flown on a plane. There might be hope for those of us who love to travel, since flights are about to become more green with recycled biofuels.

How Bad is Just One Flight?
Below is a chart comparing the carbon dioxide emissions produced by passengers using automotive, public and air travel. 

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On a full plane, per passenger, flying is actually more fuel-efficient than driving solo. (The fuel efficiency of modern jets ranges from 60 to 75 miles per seat per gallon). But there are many more factors at play than just fuel-efficiency for a full flight at high altitudes. 

People take planes because they are the fastest mode of transportation, except this high speed creates tremendous drag force on the plane (i.e. friction), which exponentially impacts the amount of energy used and, thus, its energy efficiency. Second, since airplanes travel at a high altitude, the effect of carbon released into the atmosphere is essentially double what it would be on the ground. And third, airplanes allow people to travel distances they would never go otherwise, which makes it much easier to rack up a high mileage (and carbon emissions) in a plane. 

From the graph above, aircraft carbon emissions rival that of the SUV and gas sedan in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger per mile. One 6-hour flight from coast to coast of the US (roughly 3,000 air miles, a medium-haul flight) would release 2,520 pounds of CO2 per passenger. If the plane has empty seats, then that number is much higher. (Calculate how much CO2 your car releases here.)

Simply put, taking one flight can easily- and quickly- negate any green initiatives you have taken to reduce your carbon footprint, but sustainable flying (well, less-harmful flying) is making its way into our near future.  

Sustainability in Aircraft Fuel
Each year in the US, $50 billion is spent on commercial aircraft fuel. Airlines are eager to reduce this pricetag, and many have sought out using biofuels to power aircrafts' engines. By increasing the ratio of biofuel found in plane jet engines, carbon emissions would be drastically reduced.

What is Biofuel? Aviation biofuels are typically made from either algae or recycled vegetable oil (waste cooking oil). 

November 2011 marked the first biofuel flights on United and Alaska Airlines. Since then, Lufthansa has operated the first transatlantic flight using biofuels. Just in the last month (June 2012), KLM operated its longest biofuel flight from Amsterdam to Rio; and, using a fuel made of 50% biofuel made from used cooking oil (from KLM's SkyNRG), Airbus and Air Canada flew a plane from Toronto to Mexico City which reduced carbon emissions by more than 40% compared to the regular flight. 

Biofuel is Profitable for Business
Switching planes from petroleum-based fuel to biofuel is attractive not only for environmental reasons, but for business reasons. A plane's weight is essentially the determining factor for how much money each flight will make. The lighter the plane, the further it can travel per gallon of fuel, and the more income each flight will generate. (Why do you think airlines began charging extra for the first checked bag?)

Any initiative to reduce a plane's load will save money. It turns out that biofuel is much lighter per gallon than standard fuel. Even though it is more expensive per gallon, biofuel would actually be more economical than petroleum-based fuel. Taking the higher performance of biofuel into account, the subsequent reductions in fuel consumption would be enough to make biofuel an extremely profitable option for airline companies. 

...What About the Passenger?
That's simple. The number one concern in flying for the passenger is the cost of the ticket. If the airlines are saving money on fuel, ticket prices will inevitably be reduced. (They want more people to fly, right?)

What Can I Do?
You can choose not to travel by plane, and instead by train, bus or car (for shorter trips). But if flying is the only option, one thing you can do is promote the use of biofuels and renewable fuels in aviation by spreading awareness. Learn about Renewable Jet Fuels and get involved. 

Should I Buy Carbon Offsets? Programs like the Carbon Neutral Plane Program sound appealing, but beware of flaws. Read more about the Carbon Offset Programs industry and why even good-intentioned programs will never work.