Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy

Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

Oct 21

Alternative Fuel in the Aviation Industry

Posted in Biofuels | Energy Industry | Future Technology | Transportation

Alternative Fuel Aviation While alternative fuels are being heavily studied for automobiles, we’re now seeing a push from a different direction. The aviation industry has taken an intense interest in the subject, and this might be enough to push biofuels over the edge into economic viability. The aviation industry produces only about one-ninth as much carbon dioxide as motor vehicles do. However, environmentalists are vocal about emissions from aviation, because they tend to go into the upper atmosphere, where some scientists say the impact is greater. Plus, the industry is growing quite rapidly.

Unlike the automotive industry, airlines have actively sought to reduce their emissions. Over the last 30 years, U.S. car manufacturers haven’t cut motor vehicle emissions at all – while civil aviation has cut its environmental impact by 70 percent (as measured per passenger mile).

More to this point, the industry is eager to continue its aggressive carbon-cutting. The Air Transport Association wants to cut emissions by 30 percent per passenger by 2025. Meanwhile, the Commercial Aviation Fuels Initiative (an alliance of industrial companies, university researchers and various government agencies), is working to establish a purely biological jet fuel by 2013.

So why should we care? Because this is a huge technical challenge. Jet fuel has to be very energy-dense since a plane has limited volume and weight capacities in its tanks, and a fuel containing less energy will reduce the aircraft’s range. This means ethanol and other currently available biofuels won’t work as jet fuels.

Plus, ethanol and other biofuel crops can’t be cultivated in large enough quantities for the volume of fuel required. According to some estimates, we would need to convert the entire continental United States over to corn production if we wanted to fly airplanes with corn ethanol.

Aviation companies know all this. That’s why they are intensely studying “second generation” biofuels, such as nut oils from jatropha curcas (Barbados nut) and babassu. These oils are more energy-dense than ethanol. As a bonus, many of these oils cannot be consumed by humans, so we wouldn’t be making fuel from food.

Even these oils can’t supply all of aviation’s needs, though. Most industry experts agree that the best long-term solution is likely to come from algae. Algae can produce an oil yield up to 15 times that of other biofuel plants. In theory, every airplane in the world could be supplied by a total cultivated area the size of West Virginia. Plus, some algae actually consume greenhouse gases during their cultivation, rather than producing it (as corn ethanol production does).

Industry experts say the upside is tremendous.

“Airlines, along with airframe and engine manufacturers, have made enormous strides regarding efficiency, but the industry still runs on oil,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, an industry publication. “It makes environmental and economic sense to reduce dependency on this one commodity, and whoever can develop a viable alternative will have a lot of eager customers.”

A huge amount of money is about to be spent on this problem. The solution that emerges will be deployed on a worldwide scale. The company that creates that solution will be the next Microsoft or Google.

-James DiGeorgia is editor and publisher of the Gold and Energy Advisor Newsletter ( and the author of the popular book, The Global War for Oil.

  • Ray The Money Man

    Sounds like the Aviation industry has the advantage of forced standardization which may move in ahead faster than the auto industry.

    Great post!

  • Eujal Nathan

    I think concentration should be give to both aviation as well as the vehicles on the ground. Accepting the fact that pollution because of aviation is much higher. Even then a common source of alternative should be found since vehicles for land transports are growing in same phase like the aviation industry by knowing the fact aviation industry constitutes only 1/9 th of the total air pollution. I believe the gases which causes global warming including chloro-fluro carbons and carbon monoxide are released more from ground. Scientists should be aware of this fact!.

  • chris

    This is good, at least someone is doing good by it.

  • Rick Lanese

    I agree with Ray The Money Man. The aviation industry definitely has a better chance of pushing this forward than the auto industry, especially with the problems the auto industry has. Thats why they call him Ray The Money Man!. Thanks a bunch, Rick L.

  • Gary

    Boeing is actively supporting biofuels along with the airlines for many reasons. Stabilization of supply and cost being the priority. However, the environmental benefit is icing on the cake.

  • Kenneth B. Smith

    Everything I have read says that ethanol and methanol can be used as jet fuel, but butanol would be a better choice. The vapor pressure, flash point and temperature at altitude would be some of the deciding factors.

    Alcohol will get comparable mileage to gasoline when compression is 12 / 1 or 14 to 1 in a recip engine. It also has better performance in a jet at 30,000 feet or higher with less pollution than jp-4.

  • Jon Brown

    That is a good observation Kenneth. Unfortunately the aviation indsustry does not use typical gasoline. The gasoline most typically used by the public is 87 octance (for regular gasoline), Jet fuel has over 2 times the octane rating. That is why most people would fill up their muscle cars with jet fuel back in the 60s and 70s. More octane equals more horsepower.

  • Peter

    Sorry, but the above remark is wrong: Jet fuel (JetA) is more like Diesel or kerosene, not at all like gasoline. It has no octane rating, it has a cetane rating – basically the opposite of octane. You want diesel and Jet A to ignite spontaneously under heat and pressure which is exactly the opposite to high octane gasoline.

    Avgas (aviation gasoline) used to have much higher octane ratings, up to 130 in the old days. That stuff is no longer available and the Avgas you can get from your local airport is essentially no different as far as octane goes from the stuff at your local gas

    More octane does not mean more HP – it simply means you can run higher compression ratios without the risk of detonation. Fueling up your car with high octane gas makes zero difference to its power, unless you also raise the compression ratio.

    Just wanted to explode that myth….

  • Amiani

    I think its time the aviation industry gave back to mother nature part of the returns… going green is but a start… BIG UP!

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