The aviation industry needs to figure out where it can store all that biomethane

The domestic airline industry has many fuel efficiency and emission goals in place. The weak economy this decade has cost airlines money and put pressure on passenger demand. Airlines cut capacity, increasing congestion in…

The aviation industry needs to figure out where it can store all that biomethane

The domestic airline industry has many fuel efficiency and emission goals in place. The weak economy this decade has cost airlines money and put pressure on passenger demand. Airlines cut capacity, increasing congestion in the industry and more talk about how to cut costs and make money.

The use of higher energy sources has gone from theory to reality for some international airlines, with airlines in Europe and China including fuels containing hydrogen in their fuel mixes. Now some in the airline industry say the government can’t just wait for market forces to play out — the government must demand more from the global airlines before it loses control of aviation emissions.

Government officials have already set requirements for greater environmental aviation. The current global phase-out of older but more efficient aircraft would shrink the global fleet by 18 percent by 2030. Countries need to meet their part of the burden, though, and airlines must make the math work too.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has included increased use of hydrogen as one of its voluntary goals.

The aviation industry is trying to find the right mix of energy sources. Currently, planes have to burn jet fuel — which is a fossil fuel — to stay in the air. So, airlines look at which fuel source will keep the planes aloft for longer. Now, airlines are researching another alternative fuel to burn in aviation engines.

It’s called biomethane. Aviation is the largest consumer of natural gas in the United States, with more than 85 percent of the nation’s airlines filling their fuel tanks with gas. Some airlines are converting to biomethane as an alternative — because it burns cleaner than jet fuel, is less harmful to the environment, and is cheaper.

But doing so is a complicated business. Because of the relatively low price of natural gas, the gas can’t be turned directly into aviation fuel. The airlines want to use it in their ground transportation operations and won’t supply it directly to their airplanes. Instead, they have to store it for use as a fuel in the future.

That means that the industry must identify some way to store biomethane without creating a big environmental impact. The industry says, given some energy market corrections, the industry could solve the storage issue.

The issue for airlines is that so far, there are no commercially available landfills large enough to hold all the biomethane that U.S. airlines would produce if natural gas prices rose, forcing airlines to store their own biomethane or have it stored, too. In 2013, industry executives rejected proposals for commercial storage sites because they can’t provide enough land.

At the United Nations air travel assembly, the goal is to expand the global pool of land for landfills.

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