Everyday garbage could fuel the planes of today

Apr 19 2017, 5:41 am

In the final scene to Back to the Future Part II, Doc is seen pulling into the driveway with a flying version of the DeLorean. He picks up a banana skin and crushed beer can and shoves the garbage into a ‘Mr. Fusion’ canister under the hood of the car.

While that may still seem farfetched even 27 years after the movie was made, Cathay Pacific’s head of biofuels Jeff Ovens says that is basically what is going on with the Hong Kong-based international airline’s industry-leading program to introduce a renewable element to jet fuel.

“Spielberg was on the right track,” Ovens told Daily Hive during an interview at Cathay City, the airline’s expansive global headquarters near Hong Kong International Airport. Ovens spent the last six years building his department from the ground up with little understanding of the industry initially.

Garbage feedstock will be turned into jet fuel instead of being dumped at landfills. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

In 2014, Cathay made a strategic decision to invest in Fulcrum BioEnergy, an American company that’s in the process of building a waste-to-fuels conversion facility in Nevada. When the facility becomes operational in 2019, it will take household garbage and turn it into transportation fuels, including jet fuel.

In the meantime, until the facility is ready, Cathay has been testing the use of biofuels produced from sugar cane by San Francisco-based Amyris on a cargo Airbus A350 flight between Toulouse, France and Hong Kong.

“The reason why we chose the A350 was to go back to our environmental drive and reduce  our carbon emissions,” he said. “The A350 is currently one of the most fuel efficient aircraft in the skies today and has the lowest emissions per seat.”

“We decided to choose the A350 to show the potential of a combination of the ultra modern technology and low-carbon fuels combined to see what the net benefit that would be from a carbon reduction point of view.”

Ovens says any biofuel that is used is always certified to the same technical standards as regular jet fuel. In the case of Amyris, he asserts that its sugar cane biofuel is slightly better in terms of performance, even though the chemical composition is virtually identical. But over the long-run, Cathay does not believe in the strategy of growing crops for fuel instead of for food.

How it works

As for Fulcrum’s manufacturing process, garbage is superheated and turns from a solid form into a gas form. This gas is then turned into a liquid, which is refined into a fuel.

In a decade from now, Fulcrum’s fuel could be mixed with regular fossil fuels in the fuel storage tanks at airports like Hong Kong International Airport. It could account for 2.5% of the make-up of jet fuel used by aircrafts, possibly increasing to up to 10% if other suppliers are sought.

This would potentially allow Cathay to claim credit for carbon offsets, just ahead of the United Nations’ International Aviation Civil Organization’s plan to enact a global green tax on the aviation sector in a bid to cut emissions. Airlines around the world would have an obligation to this tax, but Cathay is looking for more economical alternatives that provide the same if not greater impact.

“You’re reducing the burden of landfills, the methane emissions of landfills, as you do not allow things to degrade and decompose, and you’re not using oil out of the ground,” said Ovens. “So it ticks a lot of boxes for us.”

“It was a game changer for the industry as no other airline had done that sort of step. We were the first airline to invest directly in a fuel supplier, the first airline to run the Airbus A350 on biofuel, and we’re still the airline with the longest flight on renewable fuel.”

From Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific flies 14 times weekly to Toronto and 17 times weekly to Vancouver, which includes the use of an A350 aircraft. Flights to Hong Kong International Airport are timed with Cathay-operated and partnered connections to dozens of destinations across Asia.

The main concourse/atrium area at Cathay City in Hong Kong. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Replica of a Cathay Pacific aircraft interior for the purpose of simulating real-life situations for flight crew. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

All Cathay Pacific flight crew must sign-in and pass a knowledge test prior to duty. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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