A Hawaii House of Representatives bill on sustainable aviation fuel has attracted the notice of a team of researchers at England’s Oxford University who recently announced they’ve invented an efficient and cost-effective way of producing carbon-neutral jet fuel from atmospheric carbon dioxide.
If this proves economically viable, the bill would be a game changer for Hawaii and the world. It would take the islands a long way toward our state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.
Jet fuel combustion is Hawaii’s largest single source of carbon emissions, producing more than either automobiles or electric power generation. A single passenger’s round trip to the mainland is the rough equivalent to a year of automobile driving in CO2 emissions. For the environmentally conscious, it makes flying to see the grandkids into something of a guilt trip.
That’s why House Bill 683 was introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki and Reps. Mark Nakashima, Aaron Ling Johanson, John Mizuno and Dee Morikawa. According to its description, the bill would provide “matching grants to any small business in Hawaii that is developing products related to sustainable aviation fuel or greenhouse gas reduction from commercial aviation operations.”
To date, efforts in that direction have been primarily in the area of biofuels, but the Oxford process, which creates jet fuel using only air, water, and renewable energy, would certainly qualify.
The team in England is led by Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Edwards and chemists Benzhen Yao and Tiancun Xiao. Their decade-long research has been supported by government agencies in China and Saudi Arabia.
When I alerted the Oxford scientists to the potential opportunity in Hawaii and House Bill 683, the team leaders, Peter Edwards and Tiancun Xiao, replied that they are “very interested” and that they “would be happy to start up in Hawaii if proper support is available.”
In a subsequent email exchange, Tiancun added, “Hawaii could become a world example to be a net-zero air travel state. I am sure our advanced catalyst system and novel process can catalyze this.”
The scientists are already confident that their process is far more efficient and economical than previous methods of converting CO2 into jet fuel. Their goal now is to see if their new process is economically viable.
In other words, can it compete in the marketplace with jet fuel created by refining crude oil? Benzhen Yao was quoted in Forbes magazine saying, “This is the critical question that now occupies us.”
Hawaii may seem a counterintuitive choice for a jet fuel manufacturing site, but because of our visitor industry, Honolulu’s airport is one of the busiest in the United States. We also have a large military presence with the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all flying jets, so there is a substantial jet fuel market.
There is a refinery at Campbell Industrial Park operated by Par Pacific, but it can only refine petroleum products that get shipped here, and we are thousands of miles from the nearest oil well. Our fuel prices are among the highest in the nation.
We are, however, amply supplied with the renewable energy resources, especially wind and solar, that the Oxford process requires. If the process is going to be competitive anywhere, it should be here.
This new method of creating jet fuel is not to be confused with reforming the CO2 in fuel gas from refineries. That process is very fossil-fuel intensive.
This new method employs CO2 captured from the air, which is converted with hydrogen (H2) using a process called organic combustion and a new, “super-catalyst” made from a compound of iron, manganese and potassium to produce specific hydrocarbons. Functionally, the fuel produced is identical to the fuels currently used by the aviation industry.
Hawaii is amply supplied with renewable energy resources.
First revealed last December in the scientific journal Nature Communications, the Oxford discovery has since received cautious but enthusiastic notice in the British press as well as in Forbes, The Washington Post, Science News, Chemical and Engineering News and Chemistry World.
Edwards was quoted in The Daily Mail saying, “This is a really exciting, potentially revolutionary advance, the most important advance in my four decade career.”
So what are the prospects for House Bill 683 in Hawaii?
Well, it’s a tough year for any legislation that requires spending money. But so far the bill has passed with near unanimous support in the House Committees on Economic Development, Consumer Protection and Commerce, and Finance with the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Office of Planning all testifying in support.
A related bill, House Bill 327, would convene a sustainable aviation fuel task force within the Hawaii state energy office to develop a state action plan to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of international air transportation from Hawaii. This bill has also passed out of committees in the House.
Both bills are now expected to cross over to the Senate. We can hope this new scientific discovery and the interest in Hawaii from the Oxford scientists will earn the legislation additional attention.
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