SpiceJet's biofuel flight: What are major advantages of using biojet fuel?

SpiceJet Photo: Twitter/ @flyspicejet
SpiceJet operated India’s first commercial airplane on biofuel from Dehradun to Delhi on Monday. Shine Jacob explains the significance of that flight for the country's aviation industry

What is biofuel and where does India stand with regard to its use?

SpiceJet used a blend of 75 per cent aviation turbine fuel (ATF) and 25 per cent biojet fuel made from jatropha. 

What are the major advantages of using biofuel in aircraft?

The use of biofuel offers two distinct advantages — it can cut the fuel bill and also reduce the carbon footprint of an airline. Back of the envelope calculations indicate that running cost per flight will be down 50 per cent and carbon footprint by up to 15 per cent. 

According to the International Air Transport Association, the aviation industry contributes 2 per cent to the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and this figure will rise as the aviation industry expands. The association has set an ambitious target to mitigate carbon emissions from air transport — including an average improvement in fuel efficiency — of 1.5 per cent per year from 2009 to 2020, a cap on net aviation carbon emission from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth) and a reduction in net aviation carbon emissions of 50 per cent by 2050, relative to the 2005 levels. The overall target is that, by 2025, one billion passengers must fly in aircraft that use a mix of clean energy and fossil fuels. 

The SpiceJet flight comes at a time when ATF prices have increased more than 20 per cent since the beginning of this year to Rs 9,090 per kl in Delhi. Wider use of biofuels can mitigate the plight of an industry reeling under high fuel prices. The move is also part of the environment-friendly aviation action plan the government is expected to announce shortly.

Where did SpiceJet source the biojet fuel from?

The fuel used in the SpiceJet flight was developed by the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum, one of the constituent laboratories of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research based in Dehradun. The use of biojet fuel is recognised by the American Standard Testing Method and meets the specification standards of Pratt & Whitney and Bombardier for commercial application in aircraft.

To what extent can biofuels mitigate the problem facing the aviation industry?

The three state-run companies have a majority share of over 90 per cent in the ATF market, while private players such as RIL and Essar Oil own the remaining market. For the fuel to be used on a large scale, the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum must have a tie-up with one of the oil marketing companies. The availability and sourcing of jatropha might pose a hurdle for biojet fuel to become mainstream. 

Interestingly, oil marketing companies are facing a supply crunch on ethanol. Of the total requirement of 3.13 billion litres, they were able to source only about 1.58 billion litre during the current sugar year ending September 30. In addition, the price of ethanol is also a concern as producers are getting Rs 43.70 per litre, excluding the Goods and Services Tax and transportation cost payouts. Industry sources state that lower prices have affected the availability, even though production of sugar molasses was higher during the current year.

How pervasive is the use of biofuel globally and what are the targets set by India?

Brazil leads the way on ethanol use allowing up to 100 per cent blending in the automobile sector. Countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada allow 10-35 per cent blending. Philippines has just started blending of automobile fuel by up to 10 per cent.

India is targeting 10 per cent blending of automobile fuel with ethanol by 2022, and by 2030, this might be increased by another 20 per cent. The move is expected to lead to savings in the country's oil import bill — from $88 billion in 2017-18 to $109 billion in 2018-19, considering an average crude oil price of $65 a barrel.