Biofuels and biofuel for aircraft are a topics that periodically come up – especially whenever oil prices go through the roof (like last year). One of the potential fuels that sometimes gets promoted for mass production is algae because after all, its renewable and producing it won’t harm current food supplies (a BIG problem with other biofuels such as corn or sugar cane based ones).
Hence Brett, the blogger behind the Cranky Flier blog, recently had an interesting discussion with the President and CEO of OriginOil about their algae oil product and its potential use as aviation fuel. Apparently, algae oil is not all hype and its been proven that algae can be turned into oil. However, it usually takes a tremendous amount of energy and chemicals to produce the fuel. And although OriginOil uses a different process that takes a tremendous amount of water, Brett noted that on one acre:
You probably will have about 40% of it as actual tank capacity for growing. In that environment, you will turn out about 63,000 gallons per year for that acre. How many airplanes can that power?
It’ll keep a 747 in the air for about 18 hours. That’s it.
In other words, don’t expect to see algae-powered airplanes anytime in the immediate future. And while OriginOil believes that it will take about 5 years before a sustainable algae oil industry develops, the price of the fuel (at best, US$8 per gallon of oil and with some people thinking it will be more like US$12 or US$14 per gallon) will largely remain prohibitive for use by aviation.
The July issue of AOPA Pilot also had a good article on the use of biofuels in aviation. I think it's going to take some time before we find out 1/ what the price of AVGAS replacements is when produced on a large scale and 2/ what is the overall environmental impact of the production of biofuels for aviation. And who knows, the electric plane maybe will get there before biofuels?