Can bio-fuel be an alternative to Nigeria’s Jet A1?

For Nigerian carriers to overcome the perennial shortage of aviation fuel, they need to urgently think of an alternative. They face serious challenges on how to procure it or have it locally developed, writes WOLE SHADARE
Scarcity, blow to sector
It is no longer news that aviation fuel, until recently, dealt a huge blow to the aviation industry in Nigeria. Aside the scarcity of the commodity, price of Jet A1 has also skyrocketed to an all-time high of between N220 and N250 per litre from N120 per litre that prevailed a year ago.
This situation is giving airline operators sleepless, as Jet A1 gulps over 35 per cent of their revenue at a time fares have remained static or at best increased by less than five per cent, coupled with recession that has seriously affected the travel patterns of Nigerians. Aviation fuel costs more in Nigeria and other oil producing countries than their counterparts that do not produce oil.
For instance, in Nigeria, despite the stability in the lifting of aviation fuel across the country and the deregulation of the commodity, JET A1 is considered very expensive.

Africa has costly fuel
Aviation fuel is central to the operations of an airline, as it constitutes between 35-40 per cent of an airline’s cost. The price of the commodity – laden with taxes – in the West African sub-region, is the highest in Africa.
While the specialised fuel is sold for about $2.30 cents per gallon in Nigeria, $2.30 in Benin and $1.94 cents per gallon in Cameroon, it is sold for close to $3.14 cents in Ghana, which also produces oil. In Luanda, Angola (also an oil producing country), it costs $3.75 per gallon; Libreville $2.05 per gallon; Khartoum, Sudan $2.44 per gallon.
It is only Equatorial Guinea that sells JET A1 for $0.46. Jet fuel prices in some African capitals are double the global average and it is posing a threat to its aviation sector development. The high cost of jet fuel in Africa compared to other regions due to distribution inefficiencies and infrastructure constraints, has held back the development of airlines and fare reduction.
Vice-President for Africa, International Air Transport Association (IATA), Raphael Kuuchi, said recently that on the average, they notice that fuel price is 21 per cent more expensive in Africa than the world average. “In addition to that, we brought these taxes together.
Africa is not a rich continent and we ask, why must we be paying the most? If you look at the high fuel taxes in Africa, the victims are actually oil producers.” He lamented that in most of the oil producing countries; aviation fuel is mostly expensive, adding that it is baffling.
Explore the alternative
If airlines in the continent and particularly in Nigeria are groaning, isn’t it time for them to explore alternative to the reliance on Jet A1. Biofuel readily comes to mind as alternative source of energy for airlines, but how realistic is this for Nigerian carriers and the aviation industry in the country?
Nigeria is yet to develop the level where biofuel can be as alternative to the ethanol type of fuel considering that there are no research and preparation into that field of technology. If the airlines are to import biofuel, will it be cheaper than biofuels?
If the answer is in the contrary, it becomes nonsensical for the operators to rely on it. Would passengers be willing to travel by air if they find out that aircraft are being powered by fuel from plants or wood waste?
Making biofuels at large, commercial scale is difficult and dozens of companies have gone belly up trying. The logistics of securing a steady, cheap supply of whatever the fuel is to be made from can take years. Financing a plant is expensive because lenders know the risks and demand generous terms.
A sharp drop in the price of crude oil has made competing with traditional fuels on price more difficult. Aside the cost implications for carriers, airlines are seriously considering the option to reduce gas emission.
The new focus
Aviation biofuel is a biofuel used for aircraft. It is considered by some to be the primary means by which the aviation industry can reduce its carbon footprint. After a multi-year technical review from aircraft makers, engine manufacturers and oil companies, biofuels were approved for commercial use in July 2011. Since then, some airlines have experimented with using of biofuels on commercial flights.
The focus of the industry has now turned to second generation sustainable biofuels (sustainable aviation fuels) that do not compete with food supplies nor are major consumers of prime agricultural land or fresh water.
On January 23, 2014, Boeing announced three new developments in its quest to produce sustainable aviation biofuel. A week later, the company identified “green diesel” as a new biofuel that would emit at least 50 per cent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel over its lifecycle.
Also recently, Boeing and partners said they had made breakthroughs in researching a shrub-like plant called halophytes, which feeds off seawater in desert terrain.
The research on the shrublike plant was spearheaded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), which is funded by Boeing, Etihad Airways and Honeywell UOP and hosted by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. According to the findings, the desert plant can be made into biofuel more effectively than many other feed stocks.
The call for biofuels is resonating all over the globe occasioned by the number of global fliers, it is expected to more than double in the next two decades. In order to carry all those extra passengers, airlines are turning to a technology very few can make work on a large scale: converting trash into fuel.
They have no other choice. As people in countries such as China, India and Indonesia get wealthier; they are increasingly turning to air travel for vacation or business, creating an enormous financial opportunity for the airlines.
The number of passengers worldwide could more than double, to 7.3 billion a year, in the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). But many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, that growth could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions.

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Wole Shadare