APEX Insight: Boeing, along with Japanese aviation industry leaders, want to see biofuel powering one percent of global jet-fuel demand by 2016. Though that number might seem low, the challenge and environmental benefits would prove to be great.

Eyes on the Prize
In 2020, all eyes will be on Japan as Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic games. Just as tourists will have to navigate the Tokyo Metro system, Boeing and a group of Japanese aviation-industry stakeholders are working on an equally intricate puzzle: reducing air travel’s environmental footprint before the Olympic Cauldron is lit.

Initiatives for Next Generation Aviation Fuels (INAF) began its five-year plan in May 2014 and, together with Boeing, recently unveiled a roadmap to develop sustainable aviation biofuel for flights during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. In addition to Boeing, which is involved in biofuel initiatives all over the world, the steering committee includes Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Nippon Cargo Airlines and the University of Tokyo, among others.

“Boeing is proud to work with Japan’s aviation sector, including customers and the Japanese government, to achieve their ambitious goals for developing sustainable aviation biofuel,” says George Maffeo, president of Boeing Japan, in a press release. “Building on our longstanding relationships in Japan, we are committed to help reduce aviation’s carbon emissions and its reliance on fossil fuel.”

Liquid Gold
Biofuel is contingent on its supply chain. Getting the right sorts of feedstock (i.e. the “bio” in “biofuel”) will dictate how useful the fuel is for powering those thirsty jet engines. INAF is eyeing used cooking oil, castoffs from industrial woodworking and the perhaps-euphemistically-named “municipal waste.”

By 2016, Boeing wants to see biofuel powering one percent of global jet-fuel demand, which would be in excess of 800 million gallons. Depending on the feedstock, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reckons biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent when compared to typical fossil fuels; this includes jack-o’-lantern power.

Fuel System
If you thought changing the shape of the iPhone charging port caused interconnectivity chaos, imagine changing how a jetliner is powered. Boeing is doubling down on biofuel after having written off options like solar and fuel-cell technology as unworkable in the aviation industry for years to come. It’s not just the fuel, but the network: Currently-operating airplanes and airports are at radically different levels of modernity. Biofuels must be “drop-in fuels,” usable with not only the engines but also the fueling systems currently used around the world. (Meanwhile, Airbus is still developing electric-aircraft technology to sidestep the fuel problem completely.)

Aside from airline industry heavyweights, various Japanese government ministries are involved in making biofueled commercial aviation a widespread reality. The challenge may be great, but the reward is even greater. It’s not just mega-sponsors who turn heads at the Olympic Games: If the aviation industry can make deep enough inroads into viable biofuels, it will create a wow-factor bigger than any Opening Ceremony. Beyond the kudos, of course, lies the promise of cleaner air for everyone.