Last week there was a story in the newspapers about British Airways. They’ve announced a scheme to turn London rubbish into aviation fuel, and have committed to buying 50,000 tonnes of this recycled fuel a year. A new plant in Essex will create 150 jobs and start producing in 2017.
Tat’s quite an interesting experiment, but I was pretty sure I’d heard it before. And indeed, a little Google search reveals that this is the airline’s third bite of this particular PR cherry.
Two years ago they were talking about this at a biofuels conference, with the plant “due to being pumping fuel from 2015.” It was actually first announced two years before that, with the 201o version saying it would be in production by 2014.
It seems the project has been delayed somewhere along the line, and perhaps that’s not surprising. It is rather complicated. The process, developed by Solena Fuels, involves super-heating rubbish to 5,000C in a plasma chamber. That turns it into gas, which is then cleaned and conditioned and turned into liquid fuel through the Fischer-Tropsch process. Finally, the fuel is ‘cracked’ into high quality jet fuel and other products.
The advantages include reducing British Airways’ dependence on oil, and making them a little less vulnerable to oil price spikes. Supply of London rubbish is predictable, and they can fix a long term price with Solena – the current deal is for 11 years. If it works, they’ll build more such plants and the price of recycled fuel will fall. As you’d expect, there’s a good business case here.
It works for London because rubbish that might otherwise be incinerated or put into landfill is diverted into something useful. It turns that rubbish into a commodity and creates an income stream out of it for City Hall. Landfill expenses fall and targets are met.
The benefits to the environment are the reduction in land pollution, and the methane emissions from landfill. The fuel apparently burns cleaner than standard jet fuel, with low sulphur emissions and no soot. That’s good news for air pollution. It’s also important that this is an alternative fuel that doesn’t come from crops. Most biofuel production uses land and water that could be used for growing food, or even diverts food crops into fuel rather than food, a bad idea in a world with growing pressure on food supplies.
The disadvantages are that it sounds like a very energy intensive process. All that heat can be put to the secondary use of generating electricity from the waste alongside the fuel production, but I’d be interested to know whether it is genuinely a greener option once everything is factored in. How much potential energy is lost in the gasification process, which I understand is still quite inefficient? What are the total greenhouse gas emissions of the whole process from production to consumption in flight? And how does the ecological impact compare to other uses for that same rubbish?
That last question is the big one, because the process doesn’t just take any rubbish. It needs organic waste, and that’s useful stuff. Some of it can and should be recycled – like cardboard, paper, and fabric. Some can be composted, or fed to pigs (pending changes to EU law). The Green Sky plan cites forestry waste as a potential feedstock, but waste wood can be used to make board or landscaping materials, or it can be pressed into wood pellets for combined heat and power. It also mentions waste from agriculture and the food industry, but it would be a shame if surplus food ended up being burned at 30,000 feet rather than being used by the imaginative businesses I wrote about yesterday.
If you are going to turn rubbish into gas, that could be feeding the gas grid and used directly – maybe even lowering gas bills along the way. It could be used to generate electricity. If you turn it into liquid fuel, you could power buses or trains with it. That would be much more sustainable, since BA will still be 98% fossil-fuel powered even with this proposal.
In other words, this is more complicated than it appears. If you must fly planes, as BA do, then there’s no doubt that alternative fuels from waste is a whole lot better than the fossil fuels. But if you step back and ask broader questions about the sustainability of aviation, it’s not much of a solution in itself. From a circular economy perspective, there may be more useful things that we could do with the waste. There are certainly more sustainable ways to travel, and good reasons to reduce the amount we travel in the first place.
Still, the world will continue to have aviation for the foreseeable future and anything that can be done to reduce its ecological footprint is worth trying. I hold it as an open question. But let’s hope that the next time I read about it in the papers, it’s not another article announcing the same thing for 2020.