The military wants it. Airlines want it. Environmentally-conscious and transatlantic business aviation interests want it. But before they can have an economically viable blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and biofuel as recently approved by ASTM, farmers have to want it.
That word came from Scott Johnson, president of Sustainable Oils. His company, founded in November 2007, is developing high-value seeds for growing camelina, a non-food source of oil used in the production of biofuel.
“This is a novel crop,” Johnson observed. “It’s been under development for several years, but it has not been planted.”
That’s a quandary for farmers, Johnson said, because farmers, who have to be shrewd business operators if they’re to stay afloat, aren’t yet sure that camelina is a cash crop. However, a new program by the US Department of Agriculture is aimed at changing that with its Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP). That program provides matching payments to farmers in California, Washington and Montana for whatever they deliver to refineries (called biomass conversion facilities). It also establishes yearly payments to farmers who enter long-term contracts with the Commodity Credit Corporation to produce biomass feedstock.
The government program covers up to 50,000 acres. That is just a drop of biofuel in the bucket when it comes to creating a fuel that will compete favorably with petroleum-based av-fuels. Right now, an acre of land can produce agbout 50 gallons of biofuel. But Johnson is confident that constant refinement of the seed stock will eventually lead to an average yield of 125 gallons/acre.
Why should NBAA members care about all this?
“This is a product that can be a competitive and long term alternative to petroleum-based jet fuel,” Johnson stated. “It is a way to gain economic efficiencies and to really contribute” to America’s goal of energy independence, he continued.
But even before biofuel becomes that competitive in price with Jet-A, Johnson predicted it will be of great interest to business and commercial operators based in or flying to Europe. Because biofuel – even in a 50-50 blend with Jet-A – burns much cleaner than straight Jet-A. That means a significant reduction in carbon output for aviation enterprises, he said.
Johnson predicts American farmers will flock to camelina for a number of reasons. It does not compete for resources with food crops. Instead, it actually complements the production of cereal grains because it can be used as a rotation crop to help keep wheat, for instance, from depleting the soil. It can grow in areas where water is scarce and the quality of the soil is marginal, Johnson pointed out.
There are approximately 10 million acres of farmland Johnson deems suitable for the production of biofuel feedstock. He assumes farmers might plant about 40-percent of that with camelina, yielding 500 million gallons of biofuel a year within the next 15-years. Plenty, he said, to fuel America’s aviation needs well into the future.
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