Staff prepare the KLM Fokker 70 cityhopp
  • Staff prepare the KLM Fokker 70 cityhopp
  • Staff prepare the KLM Fokker 70 cityhopper airplane and fill it with biofuel, in Schiphol, on August 31, 2011. Dutch airline KLM announced that it will use a biofuel generated from used cooking oil to power more than 200 commercial flights between Paris and Amsterdam starting in September. 'There will be 50 percent traditional kerosene and 50 percent biofuel extracted from used cooking oil,' KLM spokesman Gedi Schrijver told AFP, adding that KLM is the first airline to use this type of fuel in commercial flights. AFP PHOTO / ANP / MARCEL ANTONISSE ***Netherlands out - Belgium out*** (Photo credit should read MARCEL ANTONISSE/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Image Credit: MARCEL ANTONISSE via Getty Images
A worker prepares the KLM Fokker 70 city
  • A worker prepares the KLM Fokker 70 city
  • A worker prepares the KLM Fokker 70 cityhopper airplane before its first flight using biofuel, in Schiphol, on August 31, 2011. Dutch airline KLM announced that it will use a biofuel generated from used cooking oil to power more than 200 commercial flights between Paris and Amsterdam starting in September. 'There will be 50 percent traditional kerosene and 50 percent biofuel extracted from used cooking oil,' KLM spokesman Gedi Schrijver told AFP, adding that KLM is the first airline to use this type of fuel in commercial flights. AFP PHOTO / ANP / MARCEL ANTONISSE ***Netherlands out - Belgium out*** (Photo credit should read MARCEL ANTONISSE/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Image Credit: MARCEL ANTONISSE via Getty Images
(FILES) A file picture taken on October
  • (FILES) A file picture taken on October
  • (FILES) A file picture taken on October 13, 20111 shows airport workers filling up the tank of an Airbus as part of its preparation for the most CO2 efficient flight ever carried out worldwide and which will travel from Toulouse to Paris at the Toulouse-Blagnac airport, in southwestern France. The growth of biofuel consumption has slowed markedly in 2011, just 3%, while it exceeded 40% three years earlier, according to a report released on July 25, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ERIC CABANIS (Photo credit should read ERIC CABANIS/AFP/GettyImages)
  • Image Credit: ERIC CABANIS via Getty Images
The KLM airplane which runs on biokerose
  • The KLM airplane which runs on biokerose
  • The KLM airplane which runs on biokerosene is seen at Schiphol airport, near Amsterdam, on November 23, 2009. A Boeing 747, one of four engines powered by a 50-percent biokerosene mix, circled the Netherlands for an hour today in what airline KLM called the world's first passenger flight using biofuel. AFP PHOTO/ANP/LEX VAN LIESHOUT netherlands out - belgium out (Photo credit should read Lex Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Image Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Aviation Biofuel
  • Aviation Biofuel
  • From left, Billy Glover, a Boeing vice president, Bill Ayer, Alaska Airlines CEO, Bill Bryant, Port of Seattle Commission president, and John Gardner, a WSU vice president, smile as they begin a news conference to call attention to a biofuels feasibility study, Wednesday, May 25, 2011, at Sea-Tac Aiport in Seattle. The 10-month study, by a group of regional stakeholders including Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Washington State University and several airports, says that the Pacific Northwest has the diverse feedstocks, fuel delivery infrastructure and political will to create a viable biofuels industry that would reduce greenhouse gases and meet future fuel demands of the aviation industry. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
  • Image Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mexico Biofuels
  • Mexico Biofuels
  • A bio-fuel supply truck sits parked by an Airbus 320 passenger plane belonging to Interjet airlines after it arrived from Mexico City in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico, Friday April 1, 2011. This was the first flight in Mexico partially powered (27%) by bio-fuels, the first step in Mexico's plans to reach the goal of powering 20% of Mexican aviation with bio-fuels. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
  • Image Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mexico Biofuels
  • Mexico Biofuels
  • Ground support workers simulate for the press a fuel charge on an Interjet airlines Airbus 320 passenger plane using biofuel in Mexico City, Mexico, Friday, April 1, 2011. The airplane was the first flight in Mexico partially powered (27%) by biofuels. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
  • Image Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
New Zealand Airplane Biofuel
  • New Zealand Airplane Biofuel
  • Test Pilot Captain Keith Pattie, right, Air New Zealand's Chief Pilot Captain David Morgan, left, pose with the company's CEO , Rob Fyfe before their test of a Bio Fuel mixture in the left hand engine of Boeing 747 in Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. Air New Zealand tested one engine of a Boeing 747-400 airplane powering it by a 50:50 blend of oil from jatropha plants and A1 jet fuel for the flight to test the fuel's viscosity.(AP Photo/NZ Herald, Paul Estcourt) ** NEW ZEALAND OUT **
  • Image Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Japan Airline (JAL) president Haruka Nis
  • Japan Airline (JAL) president Haruka Nis
  • Japan Airline (JAL) president Haruka Nishimatsu (2nd R), captain Keiji Kobayashi (L) and Koji Matsunami (R) pose in front of a jet engine of the JAL Boeing 747-300 aircraft which is decorated in a special design to mark the first demonstration flight powered by biofuel, at its hangar of Haneda Airport in Tokyo on January 30, 2009. A blend of 50 percent biofuel and 50 percent traditional Jet-A (kerosene) fuel was tested in one of the aircraft's four engines. AFP PHOTO/Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Image Credit: TORU YAMANAKA via Getty Images
The number of global fliers is expected to more than double in the next two decades. In order to carry all those extra passengers, airlines are turning to a technology very few can make work on a large scale: converting trash into fuel. They have no other choice.

As people in countries such as China, India and Indonesia get wealthier they are increasingly turning to air travel for vacation or business, creating an enormous financial opportunity for the airlines. The number of passengers worldwide could more than double, to 7.3 billion a year, in the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association.

But many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, that growth could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions.

"It's about retaining, as an industry, our license to grow," says Julie Felgar, managing director for environmental strategy at plane maker Boeing, which is coordinating sustainable biofuel research programs in the US, Australia, China, Brazil, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

Cars, trucks and trains can run on electricity, natural gas, or perhaps even hydrogen someday to meet emissions rules. But lifting a few hundred people, suitcases and cargo 35,000 feet into the sky and carrying them across a continent requires so much energy that only liquid fuels can do the trick. Fuel from corn, which is easy to make and supplies nearly 10 percent of U.S. auto fuel, doesn't provide enough environmental benefit to help airlines meet emissions rules.

"Unlike the ground transport sector, they don't have a lot of alternatives," says Debbie Hammel, a bioenergy policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That leaves so-called advanced biofuels made from agricultural waste, trash, or specialty crops that humans don't eat. United Airlines last month announced a $30 million stake in Fulcrum Bioenergy, the biggest investment yet by a US airline in alternative fuels. Fulcrum hopes to build facilities that turn household trash into diesel and jet fuel.

FedEx, which burns 1.1 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, promised Tuesday to buy three million gallons per year of fuel that a company called Red Rock Biofuels hopes to make out of wood waste in Oregon. Southwest Airlines had already agreed to also buy some of Red Rock's planned output.

These efforts are tiny next to airlines' enormous fuel consumption. US airlines burn through 45 million gallons every day. But airlines have little choice but to push biofuels because the industry is already in danger of missing its own emissions goals, and that's before any regulations now being considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency and international agencies.

The industry's international trade group has pledged to stop increasing emissions by 2020 even as the number of flights balloons. By 2050, it wants carbon dioxide emissions to be half of what they were in 2005.

Like airlines, the US military is also supporting development of these fuels for strategic and financial reasons. For biofuels makers, it is a potentially enormous customer: The military is the biggest single energy consumer in the country.

Making biofuels at large, commercial scale is difficult and dozens of companies have gone belly up trying. The logistics of securing a steady, cheap supply of whatever the fuel is to be made from can take years. Financing a plant is expensive because lenders know the risks and demand generous terms. A sharp drop in the price of crude oil has made competing with traditional fuels on price more difficult.

The airlines are now seeing some of these difficulties up close. A United program to power regular flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco with fuels made from agricultural waste was delayed when the fuel producer, AltAir, had trouble retrofitting the existing refinery. The companies now say the flights should begin in August. Red Rock's planned deliveries to Southwest have also been pushed back, to 2017 from 2016, and construction of the plant has not yet started.

But many in the industry say they are not surprised, or daunted, by the time and effort it will take to bring large amounts of biofuels, at competitive prices, to market.

"We really are trying to create a brand new fuel industry," says Boeing's Felgar. "We've always known this is a long term play, and our industry is long term."

And if any industry is going to crack fuel from waste on a big scale, the airline industry might be the best bet.

Instead of having to build the infrastructure to distribute and sell these fuels at hundreds of thousands of gas stations, jet fuel only has to be delivered to a small number of major airports. For example, nearly half of United's passengers fly through its five hubs in Houston, Chicago, Newark, San Francisco and Denver.

Still, after the many disappointments that have plagued biofuel development, few want to promise an imminent biofuel revolution. "I'm not Pollyannaish about this," says Felgar. "I'm not optimistic, I'm not pessimistic, but I'm determined."

Related Video:

United Airlines Is Developing A New Biofuel That Comes From Garbage


The AP contributed to this report.

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