Algae, Coal, and Jatropha: the Future of Aviation Fuels?

Large waterfowl are not a good recipe for jet aircraft engines in flight. That much was made vividly clear by the recent “Miracle on the Hudson” in which all 155 people aboard a US Airways flight survived when the pilot made a perfect water landing after geese “fowled” both engines following a takeoff from LaGuardia. Oddly enough, buried on the back pages during the same news period were several stories about other foreign objects – including bushes, pond scum and coal – going into jet aircraft engines.

Although less exciting, these stories undoubtedly will wind up having far greater long-term consequences to our planet, and economy.

The testing of biofuels in jet engines is gaining momentum, led by several groups of aviation companies, one of which is dedicated now to “develop and commercialize sustainable aviation fuels made from crops that do not affect food supplies, such as jatropha and algae.”

The most recent success by this group came January 7 when Continental Airlines flew a demonstration out of Houston in partnership with Boeing, GE Aviation/CFM International, and Honeywell’s UOP. One of the Boeing 737’s two engines was powered with standard A1 aviation fuel. The other ran on a 50-50 mix of standard A1 fuel and a biofuel made from algae and jatropha, which is a succulent shrub used historically for hedges in its native Central America. The jatropha fuel was provided by Terasol Energy; the algae-based fuel from Sapphire Energy.

The Continental flight involved a prescribed set of maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, including a mid-air shutdown and restart of the biofuel-powered engine. The pilot and airline both said after the test that it was “textbook” and the engine ran perfectly (and with fewer carbon emissions, it might be added).

It was the first time algae-based fuel was used in flight by a commercial carrier. Jatropha-based fuel was used for the first time December 30 by Air New Zealand in a similar test from Auckland, that one involving a Boeing 747 with one engine powered by a 50-50 blend – also a success.

The first test by an airline of renewable biofuels came about a year ago when a Virgin Atlantic 747 flew from London to Amsterdam partly using a fuel derived from a blend of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. This flight came before Boeing and other aviation industry firms made their commitments in mid-2008 to explore algae and jatropha because “both are sustainable, second-generation sources that do not impact food crops or water resources or contribute to deforestation.”

Boeing also announced in October that it hopes to phase in 30% biofuel blends over the next five years. Much of the recent hope (and hype) is based on the projected development of algae-based fuels – with Sapphire Energy getting most of the headline attention when it raised $100 million last fall, a good hunk of it from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

At least two major algal groups of companies popped up in the midst of the 2008 petro fuel meltdown, the first one called the Algal Biomass Association, a trade group that supports the general advance of the algal infrastructure. It has many corporate aviation members, including the airlines already mentioned as well as FedEx.

A second group, called Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, was launched in September and is largely responsible for the tests. Also included in this group are Air France, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, and SAS. Several of these carriers already have signed on to test various fuel blends in the months ahead. One of them probably will make headlines by being the first to use both engines with 100% biofuel.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also is involved in the second group to find ways to process green, sustainable fuel for U.S. military jets in ways that are not yet known. But the testing of other biofuels by the U.S. Air Force is continuing on its own momentum – mostly using coal.

Yes. Algae, jatropha and geese were not the only foreign objects being “tested” this month. A C-5 Galaxy, supersized military transport capable of carrying one million pounds, became the Air Force’s first coal-powered jet in a test conducted at Memphis, TN, the week of January 15. Using a 50-50 blend of standard aviation fuel and a coal-derived fuel similar to that used by British military jets with great success, the monster aircraft performed ideally, making at least two landings and takeoffs in the test.

Coal may be a fossil fuel to cause objections in some quarters. But if there’s one thing the U.S. has that makes it No. 1 in the world, it’s coal reserves.

And burning them may provide us something to use until we figure out how to grow, store, process and market our future aviation fuels.


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