Aviation fuels and peak oil (thesis)
(The work is a master thesis work from Uppsala University in Sweden and Kjell Aleklett has been supervisor for the thesis)
In this thesis future aviation fuel supply is compared to future aviation fuel demand. Most aviation fuels are jet fuels originating from crude oil. The crude oil must be refined to be useful and jet fuel is only one of many products that can be derived from crude oil. Jet fuel is extracted from the middle distillates fraction and competes, for example, with the production of diesel.
Crude oil is a limited natural resource subject to depletion and several reports indicate that the world's crude oil production is close to the maximum level and that it will start to decrease after reaching this maxima. On the other hand, it is predicted by the aviation industry that aviation traffic will keep on increasing.
The industry has put up ambitious goals to increase fuel efficiency of the aviation fleet through better engines, better flying routes and better aerodynamics, but still the demand for aviation fuel would grow. Traffic is predicted to grow by 5 per cent per year to 2026, fuel demand by about 3 per cent per year. At the same time aviation fuel production is predicted to decrease by several per cent a year after the crude oil production peak is reached. This scenario envisages a substantial lack of jet fuel by the year 2026. The aviation industry will have a hard time replacing this with fuel from other sources even if air traffic remains at today's level.
The world’s transport system is highly oil dependent and aviation is no exception, it can actually be counted as the most oil dependent transport. Annually more than 2 billion passengers enter an aeroplane to be transported to another city, country or continent. Transportation by air has its advantages primarily when travelling long distances and it makes it possible to connect the world and people in a completely different way than before. Aviation has made tourist trips to distant places possible. For example Thailand has become a very popular destination for Europeans, despite being a 12-hour flight away. Aviation has also made business connections easier and contributed to the growth of global economy.
This report will investigate the fuel component of the aviation business. Today almost 100 per cent of aviation fuel is extracted from crude oil, a fossil fuel subject to depletion. The characteristics of air travel mean that a lot of caution must be taken when introducing new fuels; being 10,000 meters in the air provides no room for failure and tests for approving aviation fuel are therefore rigorous.
Petroleum in the form of crude oil has been used for the past one hundred years in a steadily increasing amount. Most crude oil was found in the sixties and has been continuously extracted since. Eventually production will reach its maximum and start to decline. Many of the oil producing countries have reached that peak and their production is declining, for example the USA reached its maximum level in 1970 and Norway in 2003. Today more oil is consumed than found.
The availability of jet fuel can be one of the factors that will put constraints on the growth of the aviation industry. But there are a lot of things affecting the future of the aviation industry and the amount of available fuel for it. What is more important? Diesel for agricultural tractors or jet fuel for aviation? What will possible costumers choose? Airborne travel or travel by car? Will they be able to travel at all? Passenger traffic is dependent on the overall economic situation of a society; flying is mostly not essential to everyday life and vacation travel depends on people’s economic situation and the price of the trip. What price are people willing to pay for a ticket?
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In this report it has been found that aviation traffic will not be able to grow after crude oil production peaks. If aviation fuel is assumed to be a fixed part of refinery output then aviation fuel production will fall below current consumption levels. Increasing the aviation fuel part of refinery output is possible but affects the production of other fuels. The competition with diesel fuel production will probably increase.
The growth of aviation traffic is not entirely correlated to aviation fuel consumption since new, better aeroplanes enter the market, new routing and traffic control makes the journey shorter and the fuel consumption less. However, these projected fuel efficiency increases cannot keep the level of aviation fuel consumption as it is today or lower it, if air traffic increases as predicted.
Biofuels will most likely not be able to replace jet fuel for the aviation industry in the near future, but can be important in the far future. Alternative fuels produced from coal is in the near future the most probable alternative fuel to replace some conventional jet fuel.
Aviation is important and will probably continue to exist in the future, but possibly with less frequent traffic than we see today.