Gatineau biofuel company makes history with Qantas flight

Agrisoma quietly made history last week when the biojet fuel it has developed was used by Australian airline, Qantas, on a flight. The Gatineau company developed the fuel from carinata, a project that's more than a decade in the making, according to the company's president.

Agrisoma's jet fuel is made from a sustainably grown mustard-like oilseed called carinata

Agrisoma president and CEO Steve Fabijanski was in Los Angeles last week to see his carinata biofuel get used in a Qantas flight from the US to Australia. (Agrisoma)

Local company Agrisoma Biosciences Inc. quietly made history last week when its bio jet fuel was used by Australian airline, Qantas, on a flight from the United States to Australia. 

The Gatineau-based company developed the fuel from a mustard-like oilseed called carinata, and now plans to partner with the Australian airline for future production, according to company CEO and president, Steve Fabijanski.

"It's an airline that really understands that the future is going to be looking at sustainability and a reduced carbon footprint. And for them to get behind us and say, 'Let's get to work,' it's pretty cool for a smaller Canadian company to be swinging at that level."

The flight took off from Los Angeles where Qantas CEO Alison Webster spoke to reporters.

"Qantas's partnership with Agrisoma marks a big step in the development of a renewable jet fuel industry in Australia — it is a project we are really proud to be part of as we look at ways to reduce carbon emissions across our operations."

The world's first US-Australia biofuel flight took place on this Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner, using fuel from Gatineau-based Agrisoma Biosciences Inc.

Once processed, carinata is indistinguishable from conventional, fossil-fuel derived jet fuel.

"They're chemically identical. If you held up a litre of jet fuel and a litre of bio jet fuel you'd be hard pressed to tell them apart."

But the similarities end there, according to Fabijanski, who said his company's biofuel was developed with the assistance in Ottawa of the National Research Council, Agriculture Canada and others. 

For us, it's all about the sustainable farming practices that then enhance the land and add back to the land. The last thing we want to do is cut down forests to feed people.- Agrisoma CEO and president Steve Fabijanski

"The only place we're growing this crop right now is in seasons where food crops can't grow in warmer climates, or in land that hasn't supported food crop growth. So, our mantra has always been 'We will not produce any of this if it takes food out of production.'"

Half of the seed is used for oil and what's left becomes animal feed, he said. This means farmers aren't taking away from food production when they grow carinata, they're actually adding to it, said Fabijanksi.

"For us, it's all about the sustainable farming practices that then enhance the land and add back to the land. The last thing we want to do is cut down forests to feed people."

In Australia, Agrisoma and Qantas will work with Australian farmers to grow the crop.

The long-term goal is to grow the crop on 400,000 hectares to produce more than 200 million litres of bio jet fuel and replace 30 to 50 per cent of the airline's annual fuel needs, said Fabijanski.

He expects Qantas will begin to routinely use the biofuel within two years.

'Huge potential'

Agrisoma said its fuel produces 77 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Fabijanski said fuel sales will be helped by a global airline carbon reduction scheme.

"There's a huge potential because all airlines have signed on to a scheme where they're going to be carbon neutral by 2020 and then cut their carbon footprint by half by 2050," he said.

Less than five per cent of flights are currently flown using biofuel blended with traditional jet fuel, but Fabijanski hopes that half of the 300 billion litres of fuel used by the airline industry will eventually be replaced by biofuel.

These carinata seeds are used to produce jet fuel. The part of the seed that isn't used for fuel can be used to feed livestock. (Mike McCleary/The Associated Press)

"It's complicated. But in the end, what we hope to do as a company is distribute what is really a made-in-Canada solution around the globe so that all airlines that want to be greener and cleaner are able to pick this stuff up and upload the fuel at the different airports around the world."

Biofuel blends currently cost five to 10 per cent more than traditional jet fuels depending on location. But Fabijanski said biofuel prices are more stable than fossil fuels and the cost differential should eventually disappear as supply expands.

"I suspect over the next decade you're going to see one heck of a lot of jet biofuel being used. And a big chunk of that is going to be coming from carinata."

Files from Canadian Press