Biofuels — Heroes or Villains?
Metta talks to Dr. John Waite, Co-Founder and CEO of Phycobloom, about the future of sustainable fuels.
Everyone agrees that the environmental impact of today’s aviation industry (and transport more generally) needs to be addressed.
Research shows that replacing fossil fuels with biofuels — fuels produced from renewable organic material — has the potential to reduce some of the undesirable aspects of fossil fuel production and use, including conventional and greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutant emissions and more. Electric aeroplanes are another area of interest, but they are still limited in what they can achieve today. Another option could be hydrogen, and although it’s already been celebrated as the solution in some industries, it has its drawbacks. It seems unlikely that the transition from oil-based fuels and conventional combustion engines will happen organically, at the rate required to meet our sustainability and climate change goals, which will make government and policy intervention necessary.
There is a lot to unpack here, and I decided to sit down with Dr. John Waite, Co-Founder and CEO of Phycobloom, to talk through the status quo of sustainable aviation fuels, discuss biofuels and find out about his views of the future.
The below is a (very!) condensed and edited version of the podcast but if you missed the chat, you can find the full conversation on Spotify. You can also find it on Apple, Amazon and Google (+ all other good podcasting platforms while you’re at it). If you enjoyed the podcast, feel free to give us a follow or leave us a rating!
What is a biofuel?
John explained that a biofuel is chemically identical to a fossil fuel. It’s a hydrocarbon that you can, for example, put into an engine and blow up. The difference is how it’s made. For fossil fuel, we dig the carbon out of the ground, and we burn it and that carbon ends up in the air. With a biofuel, you’re using a living organism as a substrate to take carbon out of the air, and then turn it into a fuel so that when you burn it, you’re just releasing that carbon back into the air.
John is especially interested in looking at where that biofuel comes from. Does it come from a plant that has grown, like palm oil or soy oil? Does it come from tree bark? Or does it come from microorganisms like algae?
Why algal biofuel?
John and Dr. Ian Hu came together to build Phycobloom because they share two fundamental beliefs. They think that biofuels are going to become hugely important, particularly as aviation decarbonises, and they believe that current biofuels just aren’t good enough.
The team believes that algae can play a big role in improving biofuels. John explained they’re 100 times more efficient at converting CO2 into fuels than trees and other plants. They also don’t need clean water and they don’t need agricultural land.
The team is aware of the boom and bust cycles algal biofuels have been through in the past, but they believe now is the time to get it right. Synthetic biology has significantly developed in the last ten years and the tools that are available now were simply unimaginable in the past.
What are the drawbacks?
It seems like the cost of algal biofuel doesn’t make it the most competitive biofuel option at the moment. Finding cost efficient ways of building an algae plant, and then growing the algae and breaking them down and actually making them give up the oils required for the biofuel itself is a hugely expensive process. It takes a lot of equipment and expertise.
One other critical factor when it gets to biofuels is where they come from.
“That’s maybe the villainous side of biofuels: soy could be used to make it. But if you do that, your carbon emissions can be even higher than if you use fossil fuel.”
What about other options of decarbonisation?
There seem to be a lot of ideas and options when we look at decarbonising aerospace. Each have their own specific applications, benefits and drawbacks. Whether or not they are actually sustainable depends on what you use to make them.
Electric aviation seems to be an easy example. You can make sure it’s sustainable, because green electricity is something that renewables or nuclear power can produce pretty easily today. But one of the challenges that John points out is that a lithium battery is more than 50 times worse in storing energy than a carbon fuel. So you need big batteries, which weigh a lot (thus requiring more power to fly the plane), to store the same amount of energy. Not particularly efficient!
“Realistically, these sort of electric flights are going to be mostly unmanned. They’re going to be sort of city-wide taxis perhaps. Other than that, they will only be able to take very small passenger numbers.”
We also touched on hydrogen, which seems to be the silver bullet for so many industries.
“It’s a very abundant fuel carry. It’s in all water, it can be easily made from green energy, and it can be easily used as an energy store.”
The downside seems to be that it’s going to require huge amounts of infrastructural development and changes to get us to fossil fuel parity.
John shared that some aerospace companies are already retrofitting current planes for hydrogen flight; removing some of the baggage space and replacing it with hydrogen tanks. That could mean that we don’t have to wait until 2050 to have hydrogen-fuelled flight; it could happen much sooner.
Why is this especially challenging in aerospace and will industries start competing for resources?
John agreed that aviation is a tough nut to crack because it relies on exploding carbon out of the back of an engine for propulsion. You can put the electric motor in a car, but you cannot put an electric motor directly into the jet engine. That, combined with the high regulatory burden and high safety requirements, makes aerospace a bigger (and slower) challenge.
He also believes that industries will start competing for the same resources. For example, even with the advent of electric vehicles there will still be a very high biofuel requirement for the automotive sector:
“I’ve seen estimates that say sort of 20% of all automotive will need biofuels. At the moment, about 4% of road travel uses them. So you’re talking about a five times increase in biofuel consumption. And that’s permanent.”
What’s the government’s role?
Government has a huge role to play in making businesses and business models shift as quickly as possible. Generally, when greener technologies are first introduced they’re not cheaper than the alternatives. So with an industry like aviation, governments will have to force the issue, basically creating something like blending mandates for biofuels. Some of the Scandinavian countries have started creating legislation that says that a certain percentage, 1 or 2%, of their aviation fuel has to be sustainable. This artificially creates a sector and allows that technology to get onto a learning curve and eventually reduce in price.
In our conversation, John also highlighted how useful it is to compare automotive to aviation, particularly within the biofuel space. For example, automotive started using biofuels 20 years ago, and the move to biofuels was supported by government policies that enabled the strong push to really get the move going. It seems that automotive is about 20 years ahead of where aviation is.
What do we need to accelerate progress?
John thinks that government support for scaling projects is key in order to accelerate the adoption of sustainable services. The scale of investment that green technologies need is also huge and some investors struggle to see the long term vision. He also also points out the important role the established aerospace businesses have to play in this:
“We really need aviation companies to take a lead in their industry. (…) If big aerospace companies really forced their suppliers to disclose carbon emissions, disclose the sustainability impact of their products, and then improve them; that can have huge ramifications for the whole industry.”
We’d love to get you as a reader (or listener) involved in the discussion!