Editorial Feature

The Role of Biofuels in Decarbonizing Aviation and Shipping

The global aviation and shipping industries significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 2.5% and 3% of global CO2 emissions. As these sectors grow, their environmental impact is becoming increasingly concerning. In response, biofuels have emerged as a promising solution to reduce emissions and transition toward more sustainable transportation. This article explores the potential of biofuels in decarbonizing aviation and shipping, examining recent developments, benefits, challenges, and future outlooks.


Image Credit: Scharfsinn/Shutterstock.com

What are Biofuels?

Biofuels are renewable energy sources derived from organic waste and biomass, offering a sustainable substitute for fossil fuels. They provide a rapid and effective method to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate industries such as aviation and shipping, where electrification is currently not a feasible alternative.

Biofuels can be broadly categorized into three generations:

  1. First-generation biofuels: These are derived from food crops like corn and sugarcane. While they represent a transition fuel, their use is being progressively limited due to concerns about competition with food production.
  2. Second-generation biofuels: These are produced from non-food biomass and waste materials, including agricultural and forestry waste, used cooking oils, and organic matter from urban waste. Examples include sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), renewable diesel (HVO), biomethane, and biogas. They offer a more sustainable option as they do not compete directly with food production and help in waste management.
  3. Third-generation biofuels: These are sourced from algae and other microorganisms. While promising, their production has not yet been carried out commercially.

The production of biofuels involves several steps, from feedstock cultivation or collection to processing and refining. For instance, biodiesel is typically produced through the transesterification of vegetable oils or animal fats, while bioethanol is made through the fermentation of sugars or starches. Advanced biofuels often involve more complex methods like gasification and pyrolysis to break down tough lignocellulose structures.1

How Is Global Production of Biofuels Accelerating?

Video Credit: Bloomberg Quicktake/YouTube.com

Environmental Challenges of Aviation and Shipping

Aviation and shipping face significant environmental challenges due to their reliance on fossil fuels. The aviation sector has seen rapid growth in emissions. For example, in Europe alone, aviation emissions more than doubled from 1.5% in 1990 to 4.7% in 2019.

In addition to CO2, aircraft engines emit nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), water vapor, and particulate matter, influencing atmospheric properties and potentially forming persistent contrail cirrus clouds that trap heat, exacerbating the warming effect by up to three times that of CO2 emissions alone.2

While more efficient in terms of emissions per ton of cargo moved, the shipping industry still faces substantial challenges. Emissions from shipping are projected to increase by up to 50% by mid-century if left unchecked. Beyond CO2, ships emit sulfur oxides and particulate matter, contributing to air pollution and ocean acidification.3

Both industries face increasing regulatory pressure to reduce emissions in response to these challenges. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050 compared to 2008.4

Similarly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has implemented the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to stabilize CO2 emissions at 2020 levels.5

Industry Initiatives to Promote Biofuel Adoption

These regulatory frameworks have spurred significant industry initiatives to adopt cleaner fuels, with biofuels playing a central role.

For example, Qantas and Airbus have partnered to invest up to US$200 million to accelerate the establishment of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry in Australia. Their goal is to establish a local commercial-scale SAF sector and reduce reliance on imported fuels.

Qantas plans to incorporate 10% SAF into its overall fuel mix by 2030 and use 20 million liters annually for flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Australia from 2025. This initiative is expected to immediately cut fuel consumption and carbon emissions by up to 25%.

"Ensuring a sustainable future for our industry has become the priority for Airbus and we are taking up this challenge with partners across the world and from across all sectors," Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury.6

In the shipping industry, Hapag-Lloyd, one of the largest container shipping companies, and Scan Global Logistics, a global transport and logistics provider, are collaborating on a multimillion-dollar ocean biofuel initiative to integrate renewable biofuels into shipping operations. The initiative aims to reduce carbon emissions and advance logistics sustainability.

"This partnership not only allows us to reduce emissions but also reinforces our commitment to delivering sustainable logistics solutions that benefit our customers and society as a whole," Mads Drejer, Global CCO & COO at Scan Global Logistics.7

Case Studies: Successful Biofuel-Powered Flights and Voyages

The adoption of biofuels in aviation and shipping has seen notable progress in recent years.

In aviation, Iberia, Spain's flagship airline, collaborated with Repsol, a multinational energy and petrochemical company, to launch its inaugural long-haul flights using biofuel derived from waste.

Its inaugural Madrid-Washington DC flight, which utilized biofuel with a 288-passenger Airbus A330-200, consumed 15% less fuel than its predecessor, demonstrating improved environmental efficiency. Across its initial three flights linking Madrid to Washington DC, Dallas, and San Francisco, Iberia has reduced CO2 emissions by 125 tons. This initiative demonstrates the feasibility of biofuels for long-haul flights and showcases the potential for waste-to-fuel technologies in reducing aviation's carbon footprint.

Aviation faces a huge challenge that can only be overcome by taking steps like today's, which promote the production of sustainable fuels in sufficient quantities and at competitive prices so that we can continue moving forward in the green transition of the aviation sector. 

Javier Sánchez-Prieto, Iberia Executive Chairman.8

In the shipping industry, Tata Steel has become the first Indian steel company to complete a fully loaded voyage from Australia to India using a B24 biofuel blend. This blend combines 24% used cooking oil methyl ester with 76% very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO). The voyage resulted in approximately 565 tons less carbon emissions than a traditional ship using VLSFO, marking a significant step towards more sustainable shipping practices.

"By choosing a biofuel blend for our voyage from Australia to India, we were able to cut carbon emissions by ~20%, contributing significantly to our scope 3 reduction targets. We endeavour to undertake more such shipments for imports through alternate fuel-powered vessels, and continue to align ourselves with global efforts towards climate change," said Peeyush Gupta, Vice President of Tata Steel.9

Recent Research and Developments in Biofuels for Aviation and Shipping

Innovative projects are underway to increase the production and availability of biofuel for aviation and shipping. One notable example is HutanBio, a biotech company founded by Cambridge University scientists. It recently secured a £2.25 million investment from the Clean Growth Fund to advance its HBx bio-fuel oil. This fuel is designed as a drop-in replacement for the shipping industry, potentially reducing carbon emissions by 20% compared to traditional fuels.

HBx is produced from algae cultivated in specialized bio-reactor farms located on unproductive land in sunny regions, using CO₂ as a feedstock. This approach offers a circular carbon capture solution for industries and supports energy security and economic growth in local communities without competing with agriculture or causing environmental harm.10

Potential Benefits of Biofuels

Biofuels offer significant potential for carbon reduction. Compared to conventional fossil fuels, biofuels can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80%. This reduction is particularly crucial for hard-to-electrify sectors like aviation and long-distance shipping.

Moreover, biofuels contribute to energy security by diversifying fuel sources. Countries can reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels by promoting domestic biofuel production and mitigating the risks associated with price fluctuations and geopolitical tensions.11

Challenges and Limitations of Biofuels

Despite their potential, biofuels face several challenges. Production costs remain high compared to fossil fuels, with feedstock contributing up to 80% of the total cost in some cases. In addition, concerns about feedstock availability and land use competition with food crops persist, particularly for first-generation biofuels.

Technological barriers also exist in integrating biofuels into existing engines and infrastructure. While many biofuels are designed as drop-in replacements, some may require modifications to engines or fuel systems, particularly at higher blend ratios.12

Future Outlooks of Biofuels in Aviation and Shipping

Biofuels represent a promising pathway for decarbonizing aviation and shipping, offering significant potential to reduce emissions while utilizing existing infrastructure. As technology advances and production scales up, biofuels could play a pivotal role in meeting climate targets for these hard-to-abate sectors.

However, realizing this potential requires a concerted effort from industry, government, and researchers. Continued investment in research and development, coupled with supportive policies and industry commitments, will be crucial to overcoming current challenges and scaling up biofuel production and use in aviation and shipping.12

References and Further Reading

1. Arshad, M., Zia, M.A., Shah, F.A., Ahmad, M. (2018). An Overview of Biofuel. In: Arshad, M. (eds) Perspectives on Water Usage for Biofuels Production. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-66408-8_1

2. T & E. (2024). Airplane pollution. [Online]. European Federation for Transport and Environment. https://www.transportenvironment.org/topics/planes/airplane-pollution

3. T & E. (2024). Ships. [Online]. European Federation for Transport and Environment. https://www.transportenvironment.org/topics/ships

4. International Maritime Organization. (2024). Initial IMO GHG Strategy. [Online]. https://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Pages/Reducing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-ships.aspx

5. ICAO. (2024). Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). [Online]. https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/CORSIA/Pages/default.aspx

6. Airbus. (2022). Qantas and Airbus joint investment to kickstart Australian biofuels industry. [Online]. https://www.airbus.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-06-qantas-and-airbus-joint-investment-to-kickstart-australian-biofuels

7. SGL. (2024). Scan Global Logistics and Hapag-Lloyd enter into a major biofuel agreement in a new Green Collaboration. [Online]. https://www.scangl.com/news/scan-global-logistics-and-hapag-lloyd-enter-into-major-biofuel-agreement-in-a-new-green-collaboration/

8. Iberia. (2022). Today, In partnership with Repsol, Iberia is making its first long-haul flights using biofuel produced from waste in Spain. [Online]. https://grupo.iberia.com/news/01062022/today-in-partnership-with-repsol-iberia-is-making-its-first-long-haul-flights-using-biofuel-produced-from-waste-in-spain

9. Sarvesh Kumar. (2024). Tata Steel becomes the first Indian steel company to perform full laden leg on B24 biofuel for its raw material shipment from Australia to India. [Online]. https://www.tatasteel.com/media/newsroom/press-releases/india/2024/tata-steel-becomes-the-first-indian-steel-company-to-perform-full-laden-leg-on-b24-biofuel-for-its-raw-material-shipment-from-australia-to-india/

10. CGF. (2024). Clean Growth Fund invests £2.25m in HutanBio. [Online]. https://www.cleangrowthfund.com/news/clean-growth-fund-invests-2-25m-in-hutan-bio/

11. Hajilary, N., Rezakazemi, M. & Shirazian, S. (2019). Biofuel types and membrane separation. Environ Chem Lett 17, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10311-018-0777-9

12. Arias, A., Nika, C. E., Vasilaki, V., Feijoo, G., Moreira, M. T., & Katsou, E. (2024). Assessing the future prospects of emerging technologies for shipping and aviation biofuels: A critical review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews197, 114427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2024.114427

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Owais Ali

Written by

Owais Ali

NEBOSH certified Mechanical Engineer with 3 years of experience as a technical writer and editor. Owais is interested in occupational health and safety, computer hardware, industrial and mobile robotics. During his academic career, Owais worked on several research projects regarding mobile robots, notably the Autonomous Fire Fighting Mobile Robot. The designed mobile robot could navigate, detect and extinguish fire autonomously. Arduino Uno was used as the microcontroller to control the flame sensors' input and output of the flame extinguisher. Apart from his professional life, Owais is an avid book reader and a huge computer technology enthusiast and likes to keep himself updated regarding developments in the computer industry.


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