Aviation biofuel project could kill two birds with one stone - if Sinopec brings cost down

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 4:56pm

China’s civil aviation regulator on Wednesday granted a license to the nation’s top refinery for its self-developed aviation biofuel, effectively giving a green light to the large-scale commercial use of the environmentally friendly energy.

The permission, the first of its kind in China, means Sinopec Group has joined the ranks of just a few institutions in the world capable of developing aviation biofuel.

The cost of biofuels is approximately two to three times of the conventional fuel according to international standards
Xu Hui, a deputy director of Sinopec

The specific fuels approved by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to be used on commercial jets is called No. 1 Aviation Biofuel, made from palm oils and recycled cooking oils. The company initiated its research in 2009. Last April, a test flight using the fuel was successfully conducted in Shanghai.

Biofuels, made from vegetable oils or animal fats, have significantly low carbon dioxide emissions compared to those of fossil fuels and have gained popularity in recent years in the aviation industry. They are viewed as a feasible alternative to conventional fuel, especially for an industry so heavily dependent on the price of oil and under close scrutiny to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.

A number of airlines in developed countries have turned to researching biofuels in recent years, in hopes the fuels can power their commercial jets on a large scale in the near future. For instance German carrier Lufthansa, the largest airline in Europe, made more than 1,000 biofuel trips in a six-month-long trial last year.

But Sinopec has warned that a major obstacle still facing the large-scale commercialisation of this novel technology is its steep cost.

“The cost of biofuels is approximately two to three times of the conventional fuel according to international standards,” Xu Hui, a deputy director in Sinopec, told Xinhua. “The cost of collecting the used cooking oil is very high.”

Xu Chaoqun, a deputy director of CAAC also added, “the next step is to extend the variety of the raw materials of the aviation biofuels” in order to push for the further commercialisation of biofuels.

Chinese people consume 28 million tonnes of cooking oil a year, as the country's airlines burn  20 million tonnes of aviation fuel during the same period. The adoption of recycled cooking oil for biofuels in China has been hailed as a potential approach to drive down the nation’s rife black market trade of recycled kitchen oil known as “gutter oil”, known to contain carcinogens and other contaminants.

Numerous reports in recent years have shown how businessmen would illicitly collect and recycle wasted cooking oil in crude home-made workshops before selling it back to restaurants for high profits, to the shock and disgust of the public who demanded a harsh government crackdown.

Experts previously estimated that Chinese customers unwittingly consume two to three million tonnes of the illegally recycled oil every year.