The Eco-Aviation Conference in Washington, DC. The Greening of Aircraft Propulsion in London. The Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels in Rio de Janeiro. Are you familiar with these? If not, and you work in the aviation industry, you should get to know them. These and other conferences focus on alternative fuel developments for aviation use and will likely affect industry opinions. The pressure to switch to alternative energy sources or biofuels (fuel produced from renewable biological resources such as plant material, rather than traditional fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas) is heating up as scientists and regulators close in on usable alt-fuel for aircraft.

As the number of aircraft flights around the world increases, so does concern about pollution from aircraft emissions. Reducing carbon emissions is a top priority for regulators and grantmakers. The federal government's interest is evidenced by its recent funding of alt-fuel programs. This past year, the U.S. government gave $2 million in stimulus money to Seattle-based AltAir Fuels. AltAir plans to begin construction on a jet biofuel plant in 2011 in Anacortes, Washington, with alt-fuel production slated for the following year. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also issued $125 million in contracts to pursue commercial jet technology developments that reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

The aviation industry as a whole produces less carbon dioxide than other major industry sectors, such as power generation and ground transport (e.g., in 2008, only 2% of the total man-made CO2 emissions were from aviation). Aircraft, however, lack the viable alternative energy sources that already exist for other industries (e.g., solar, wind and hydro energy for power generation; electricity for cars and trains), so the focus is on direct replacements for current fossil fuels.

The FAA is working with the American Society for Testing and Materials International, a fuel specification body, to certify biofuels as safe and appropriate for commercial use. Before certification, a fuel must be able to directly substitute petroleum-based Jet A or Jet A-1 fuel, the most commonly used fuels in jet engines. The substitute biofuel must interact with aircraft and engines exactly the same way as the fuel it is replacing (thus making it a drop-in replacement). Drop-in fuels may be blended with petroleum-based fuels or, ideally, used as a 100% replacement.

At the moment, no biofuel has been certified as a drop-in replacement for jet fuel. Although development and testing of biofuels known as bio-SPKs is effectively complete, bio-SPKs are not yet approved for commercial use. According to industry experts, biofuel will be ready for aircraft use in a blended form by mid-2011 and as a full replacement by 2013.

When these alt-fuels become available, companies will need to be prepared to identify and evaluate the costs and benefits of using traditional fuels versus biofuels. The use of a biofuel may very well come with rebates or other tax incentives, while carbon emissions may become subject to additional fees (the European Union has already passed legislation that will require airlines to pay for their carbon emissions beginning in 2012). Due to the developing nature of production, however, biofuels are estimated to be costlier than fossil fuels until around 2020. Public relations consequences will also come into play. Companies should not hesitate to begin developing short-term and long-term plans for alternative fuel use or seek guidance on how to prepare for the transition .