A deal announced overnight between Boeing and China to evaluate a sustainable biofuels industry in the People’s Republic of China is part of a  push to turn shit and other biological wastes into a clear fluid that will burn exactly the same in a jet engine as aviation-grade kerosene.

It’s the “killer innovation” that air transport is chasing to end the burning of fuels that release fossil sourced carbon.

Is it being over-sold or over-hyped? No one can be sure given the commercial secrecy surrounding the competing projects, but Boeing and Airbus keep pouring cash into them to ensure they lock up as much of  any future benefit as they each can.

Imagine a China in which a network of biofuel refineries turn the crap that pours into its rivers into the fuel that it will need to run the 3770 new airliners of all sizes Boeing forecasts it will need by 2030.

That’s what is driving the Boeing-sponsored deal.

China is 1.3 billion people on the move to their place in the sun, but who can’t get there with the limitations of current energy technology.

It has an economy that “qualifies” tens of millions of  new consumers each year for whom air and high-speed rail travel is being made affordable.  In the past five years the average growth in numbers of  China air passengers was 16%, with air freight growing 15% per year over the same interval.

Boeing’s partners in the China program include PetroChina, Honeywell’s UOP division, Air China, and engine maker United Technologies.

There is also a second agreement involving the Chinese Academy of  Science’s Qingdao  Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology concerning algae based biofuel developments.

The Boeing deal follows an agreement between British Airways and the US alternative fuel developer Solena to take over a single suburban waste reprocessing plant in London by 2014 and turn sh-t and vegetable matter  into enough fuel to replace all the kerosene it puts in the fleet of small jets it flies to Europe, and on a special executive service to New York, from London City Airport.

In the past five years alternative fuel researchers have devised and proven multiple pathways for refining  a wide variety of organic wastes into the identical end product of a synthetic jet fuel that could be run through existing airliner engines without modification.

At a recent Sydney green skies conference Billy Glover, the MD for Environmental Strategy at Boeing, said biofuels from a range of sources would become affordable in existing airliners by 2015.

This would depend, at least in the early stages, on pricing assisted by emissions trading scheme benefits, where the costs of using the fossil carbon releasing component could be offset by the biofuel component.

Alternative fuel observers are beginning to wonder whether the airline sector is pursuing a course that will inevitably bring it into collision with the vested or sunk interests of big oil in the production, refining and distribution of  fossil fuels, which in the London and China projects, is replaced by the equivalent of cottage industries, locally feeding airports and perhaps maritime and surface transport users.

Whatever the fight for the spoils of new biofuel technologies, the answer to eliminating the fossil fuels that cause global warming could already be immediately behind us.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey