United hopes third try with biofuels is the charm

United Airlines took a giant step toward cutting its reliance on foreign fuels last week when it made $30 million investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy, one of the leading manufacturers of aviation biofuels made from municipal waste.

The move is being touted as a step toward reducing carbon emissions, although there are some doubts about its impact in that respect. But reducing consumption of jet fuel certainly will have a significant effect in reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Last year, United’s fleet of aircraft consumed 3.9 billion gallons of jet fuel, at a cost of $11.6 billion. Fuel costs represent 40 percent of any airline’s total expenses, and any move that cuts into that expense would be huge. Jet fuel currently sells for $2.11 a gallon, whereas Fulcrum says it can provide biofuel for less than $1 per gallon. More than 12 percent of our oil goes to making jet fuel.

Fulcrum has developed and certified a technology that can turn municipal waste, like household trash, into a sustainable aviation fuel that can be blended with existing jet fuel. The company is currently building a refinery called the Sierra BioFuels Plant near Reno that is scheduled to begin operation during the third quarter of 2017. The company also has plans for five more refineries around the country.

Biofuels are having some difficulty penetrating the automobile market, for a variety of reasons. But they’re perfectly suited for airlines. For one, they are a “drop-in” fuel that can be substituted for jet fuel without any changes. It will not require a whole new national infrastructure.

Second, airlines do most of their fueling at centralized locations. This eliminates a lot of difficulty in transporting and distributing the fuel. United, for instance, can fuel a very high percentage of its flights from its hub in Los Angeles.

Third, with jet biofuel there’s no risk of hitting the “blend wall” that supposedly limits ethanol to 10 percent of the gasoline mix. United says it will begin using Fulcrum’s fuel in 30 percent of its fuel mix for the first two weeks of flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco this summer. After that, the biofuels will be mixed in with its entire fuel stock.

United’s deal with Fulcrum is just one of several recent efforts by airlines to get into the biofuels business. Alaska Airlines aims to use biofuels at one of its airports by 2020. Southwest Airlines announced last year it would purchase 3 million gallons of jet fuel made from wood residues and produced by Red Rock Biofuels. And last year British Airways joined with Solena Fuels to build a biofuel refinery near London’s Heathrow Airport for completion by 2017.

United is on its third venture into the field. In 2009 the company made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce jet fuel manufactured from algae. Then in 2013 it agreed to buy 15 million gallons over three years from California-based AltAir Fuels, which makes biofuels out of inedible natural oils and agricultural waste. United is expecting the first 5 million gallons of Fulcrum fuel to be delivered to its LAX hub this summer.

The decision comes at a good time for the airlines, because the Environmental Protection Agency is starting to make noise about regulating the emissions of jet planes. Jet planes account for only 3 percent of our carbon emissions, but the number is growing rapidly. The Obama administration is proposing to set limits for airliner emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, is also expected to complete its own deliberations on setting standards to limit airline emissions by next February.

Fulcrum claims its technology will reduce the airlines’ carbon emissions by 80 percent, but this is based on dubious math that says carbon emissions count for zero if they do not come from fossil fuels. This premise has been challenged by a growing number of scientists who say that the whole logic of biofuels is flawed. Professor Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University has become a gadfly to the industry, arguing that if a forest is cut for biofuels consumption, it will be 90 years before this carbon can be replaced by new growth. A group of 78 scientists recently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy warning against the new EPA policy of encouraging the substitution of wood for coal. They said there would be no savings in carbon emissions.

The same logic applies, to some degree, to the use of municipal waste for biofuels. If the waste remained in landfills, it would be stored and not feeding its carbon content to the atmosphere. Therefore, it doesn’t make much difference if they are substituted for fossil fuels – the carbon output is the same. There is some benefit to using it, however, since some carbon from municipal waste ends up escaping from landfills as methane, and many facilities are required to capture it.

As far as gaining an advantage in cutting the level of foreign fuel imports, however, there is no question that biofuels can substitute for jet fuel on a 1-to-1 basis. Airlines are at a disadvantage in that they cannot be powered by electrification or natural gas, as is starting to occur in the automotive sector. Therefore, the amount of municipal waste-based fuel that can be substituted for oil-based jet fuel will be significant. And after all, the nation is certainly not going to run out of household trash.

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More attention paid to all the natural gas we’re wasting

Energy experts are starting to pay more attention to an important byproduct to U.S. oil extraction: the incredible amount of natural gas that gets burned off into the atmosphere, or “flared,” because it’s not profitable enough to capture at the well head.

Forbes contributor Michael Kanellos is the latest to examine the absurd practice, writing:

… the sheer volume of gas that gets flared or emitted into the atmosphere t remains truly astounding. A potential source of profits and jobs is literally transformed in bulk into an environmental hazard and potential liability around the clock.

It’s an environmental hazard because natural gas is made primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s many times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Some methane leaks from wells and pipelines, but even when the gas is burned off, it creates some GHG emissions.

Methane has tremendous potential as a commodity, however, because it can be turned into alcohol fuels — ethanol and methanol — to run our cars and trucks. Both fuels burn much cleaner in engines, and can be cheaper for the consumer.

When the price of oil was $115 a barrel, there was little incentives for oil drillers — who put bits in the ground mainly for oil, after all — to capture and store the natural gas, because gas remains stuck in the cellar in terms of pricing. Now that oil has dropped by 60 percent over the past seven months, maybe U.S. drillers will be incentivized to keep more of the gas that comes up in the wells.

(Our blogger William Tucker has written about the flaring issue before. It’s also discussed, along with many oil-related issues, in the documentary PUMP, which is available for download on iTunes now.)

Landfills also emit methane, and much of that is flared as well. If we captured more methane and turned it into fuel, there would be more of a market for it, and the infrastructure for converting it to fuel and distributing it would grow. A whole new generation of jobs could be created in the sector, jobs that by their nature would stay in America.

Kanellos has compiled many fascinating statistics about how much natural gas is wasted by flaring, including these nuggets:

  • Since the beginning of 2010, more than 31% of the natural gas in the Bakken region has been burned off or flared. It was worth an estimated $1.4 billion.
  • Over 150 billion cubic meters, or 5.3 trillion cubic feet, get flared annually worldwide, or around $16 billion lost.
  • Flaring in Texas and North Dakota emit the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as 500,000 cars.

Dispute flares over burned-off natural gas (WSJ)

Fracking boom waste: Flares light prairie with unused natural gas (NBC News)

Natural gas flaring in Eagle Ford Shale already surpasses 2012 levels of waste and pollution (Fox Business)

Obama aims to cut methane emissions 45 percent

President Obama’s latest effort to mitigate the effects of climate change will be to crack down on methane leakage from oil and gas wells, The New York Times reported.

The EPA will announce new regulations this week aimed at reducing methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025, compared with 2012 levels. Final rules will be set by 2016, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous sources.

Obama, stymied by Republican opposition that stands to become more solidified now that the party controls the Senate as well as the House, has increasingly turned to executive action, skirting Congress, to deal with climate change. The administration says the Clean Air Act gives it the green light to issue such mandates.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, sometimes escapes from oil and gas wells, in addition to pipelines. Although the gas accounts for only 9 percent of overall greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, another GHG that accounts for the majority of emissions.

The Natural Resources Defense Council applauded the proposed regulations, but the oil and gas industry said they’re unnecessary, since they’re already motivated to capture methane instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. If it’s captured, it can be burned in power plants to generate electricity, making it a cleaner alternative to coal. Methane can also be used to fuel cars and trucks, as compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) natural gas. It can also be converted into two types of inexpensive liquid alcohol fuels, ethanol or methanol.

Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said:

“We don’t need regulation to capture it, because we are incentivized to do it. We want to bring it to market.”

That market would grow if the infrastructure for transportation fuels were expanded, creating more of an incentive to capture methane. The price of natural gas stood at $12.68 per million metric British Thermal Units (MmBTU) in June 2008, only to crash to $1.95 by April 2012. Last month the average was $3.43 at the Henry Hub terminal in Louisiana. Profit margins are still so low that oil drillers flare off much of it.

From lab to market, it’s a long haul

The Energy Information Administration has done us an enormous favor by producing a simple chart to make sense of where the development of energy storage technology is going. Energy storage, as the EIA defines it, includes heat storage, and a quick look at the chart reveals that those forms that involve sheer physical mechanisms – pumped storage, compressed air and heat reservoirs – are much further along than chemical means of storage, particularly batteries.

The EIA divides the development of technologies into three phases – “research and development,” “demonstration and deployment” and “commercialization.” It also ranks them according to a factor that might be called “chances for success,” which is calculated by a multiple of capital requirements times “technological risk.”

As it turns out, only two technologies that could contribute to transportation are in the deployment stage while three more are in early development. The two frontrunners are sodium-sulfur and lithium-based batteries while the three in early stages are flow batteries, supercapacitors and hydrogen. The EIA refers to hydrogen as one of the ways of storing other forms of energy generation, particularly wind and solar. But hydrogen is also being deployed in hydrogen in hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles that have already been commercialized.

Other than building huge pumped-storage reservoirs or storing compressed air in underground caverns, the chemistry of batteries is the most attractive means of storing electricity, which is the most useful form of energy. Batteries have always had three basic components, the anode, which stores the positive charge, the cathode, which stores the negative charge, and the electrolyte, which carries the charge between them. Alexander Volta designed the first “Voltaic pile” in 1800 by submerging zinc and silver in brine. Since then, battery improvements have involved finding better materials for all three components.

Lead-acid batteries have become the elements of choice in conventional batteries because the elements are cheap and plentiful. But lead is one of the heaviest common elements and becomes impractical when it comes to loading them aboard a vehicle.

The great advantage of lithium-ion batteries has been their light weight. The lithium substitutes for metal in both anode and cathode, mixing with carbon and iron phosphate to create the two charges. Li-ion, of course, is the basis of nearly all consumer electronics and has proved light and powerful enough to power golf carts. The question being posed by Elon Musk is whether they can be ramped up to power a Tesla Model S that can do zero-to-60 with a range of 300 miles.

Tesla is not planning any technological breakthrough, but will use brute force to try to scale up. Enlarging li-ion batteries tends to shorten their life so the Tesla will pack together thousands of small ones no bigger than a AA that will be linked by a management system that coordinates their charge and discharge. Musk is betting that economies of scale at his “Gigafactory” will lower costs so that the Model X can sell for $35,000. According to current plants, the Gigafactory will be producing more lithium-ion batteries than are now produced in the entire world.

In the sodium-sulfur battery, molten sodium serves as the anode while liquid sodium serves as the cathode. An aluminum membrane serves as the electrolyte. This creates a very high energy density and high discharge rate of about 90 percent. The problem is that the battery must be kept at a very high temperature, around 300 degrees Celsius, in order to liquefy its contents. A sodium-sulfur battery was tried in the Ford “Ecostar” demonstration vehicle as far back as 1991, but it proved too difficult to maintain the temperature.

Flow batteries represent a new approach where both the anode and cathode are liquids instead of solids. Recharging takes place by replacing the electrolyte. In this way, flow batteries are often compared to fuel cells, where a steady flow of hydrogen or methane is used to generate a current. The great advantage of flow batteries is that they can be recharged quickly by replacing the electrolyte, rather than taking up to 10 hours to recharge, as with, say, the Chevy Volt. So far flow batteries have relatively low energy density, however, and their use may be limited to stationary sources. A German-made vanadium-flow battery called CellCube was just installed by Con Edison as a grid-enhancement feature in New York City this month.

Supercapacitors use various materials to expand on the storage capacity devices in ordinary electric circuits. They have much shorter charge-and-discharge cycles but only achieve one-tenth of the energy density of conventional batteries. As a result, they cannot yet power vehicles on a stand-alone basis. However, supercapacitors are being used to capture braking energy in electric trams in Europe, in forklifts and hybrid automobiles. The Mazda6 has a supercapacitor that uses braking energy to reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent.

The concept of “storage” can be also be expanded to include hydrogen, since free hydrogen is not a naturally occurring element but can store energy from other sources such as wind and solar. That has always been the dream of renewable energy enthusiasts. The Japanese and Europeans are actually betting that hydrogen will prove to be a better alternative than the electric car. Despite the success of the Prius hybrid, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai (which is Korean) are putting more emphasis on their fuel cell models.

Finally, methanol can be regarded as an “energy storage” mechanism, since it too is not a naturally occurring resource but is a way to transmit the potential of our vast reserves of natural gas. Methanol proved itself as a gasoline substitute in an extensive experiment in California in the 1990s and currently powers a million cars in China. But it has not yet achieved the recognition of EVs and hydrogen – or even compressed natural gas – and still faces regulatory hurdles.

All these technologies offer the potential of severely reducing our dependence on foreign oil. All are making technical advances and all have promise. Let the competition begin.