Recently Qantas announced that it would fly from Australia to the US using a brand new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner powered by a mix of aviation fuel and biofuel. Others like Richard Branson’s Virgin Group have already done this, however for Qantas it is demonstrating a new locally sourced fuel.
Qantas will use a mix that contains 30% biofuel derived from mustard seeds which they claim will reduce the carbon emissions of the flight by up to 20%. Qantas is working with Agrisoma Biosciences, a company based in Saskatoon, which is in Saskatchewan, a province in the middle of Canada.
Agrisoma, in turn, are working with the University of Queensland to help commercialise plantations of Brassica Carinata with a view to growing 400,000 hectares of the crop which in turn could be refined into 200 million litres (52.8M US gallons) of biofuel. The source of the fuel that Qantas will use is from crops grown in South Australia and Queensland by the University. Qantas are hoping to sign agreements with farmers all over Australia that will provide a source of fuel and protect the farmers livelihoods by giving them a new source of income. A win-win all round.
The plant, Brassica Carinata, is part of the rapeseed family and is known by the names of Ethiopian or Abyssinian Mustard. Rapeseed and its sister oilseed are used extensively as vegetable oils in a wide range of products. Brassica Carinata, however, was seen as the poor cousin of the family and produced a lower quality oil. One reason for that is because the plant will grow very well in semi-arid conditions whereas the rest of the family need more ground based water to thrive. This means that it is suited to the mixed conditions of Australia where the north has “hot semi-arid” and the south has “cold semi-arid” conditions. The oil produced doesn’t work so well as a vegetable oil.
The plant has had a resurgence over the past ten years as a source of aviation fuel. In 2012, Agrisoma in partnership with Honeywell UOP flew a plane with a higher than 50/50 mix. I wrote a few weeks ago about UOP also testing with algae based biofuels. The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) supplied the plane for the test with locally grown crops. A little later that year, the NRC, in conjunction with Agrisoma and Chevron, flew a plane with 100% biofuel.
The same year, Qantas flew planes across Australia using a mix of aviation fuel and a biofuel sourced from used vegetable cooking oil. It is therefore logical to consider that the current aim for Qantas is to find a mix that reduces their reliance on oil based aviation fuel and move to an ever higher percentage of sustainably farmed biofuels.
Agrisoma Biosciences is a company to watch. In April of this year, they raised $15.4M of funding to support a global expansion. They grow their plants in Canada, have the agreement with the University of Queensland and have recently signed a deal to grow the plants in South America with UPM, a Finnish bio-refiner. It’s only a matter of time before we see a mix suitable for road vehicles – and then watch the Governments scrambling to backtrack on their bans of internal combustion engines!