Alternative Jet Fuels Tested by NASA
Jets, concords and Boeings make our lives and traveling easier and faster. Rising prices are forcing companies and institutions to look for alternative fuels. NASA and 11 other research groups are testing two non-petroleum-based jet fuels that will be viable for commercial jets too and aviation companies can heave a sigh of relief as far cost of conventional fuels are concerned. They have derived this alternative fuel from coal and natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch process. These fuels have stirred interest because they have the energy necessary for commercial flight.
“We’re still very much in the early research stage,” said AAFEX project manager Dan Bulzan of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. “[But] we know in the future these fuels are going to become important to aviation. Petroleum is dwindling and you’re going to need to make fuel out of coal, natural gas and biomass.”
What is the Fischer-Tropsch process? It is a chemical reaction in which a synthesis gas — a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen — is converted into liquid hydrocarbons of various forms. The process generates synthetic petroleum for use as a lubricant or fuel. This technology is not at all new and has been around for decades. But high cost of building manufacturing plants for synthetic fuels was generating little interest in the industry. This technology is not in use in the USA but in other parts of the world.
The Fischer-Tropsch process is used for production of synthetic fuels. Some companies have shown faint interest in synthetic fuels in proprietary tests. But a major difference about NASA being involved is that the outcomes of these tests will be in the public domain because researchers are obtaining them with a NASA plane.
The NASA conducted tests on Feb. 3 at Dryden Flight Research Center in California. They are predominantly paying attention to measure the performance and emissions of two synthetic fuels. “We’re starting to look at just what comes out of the tailpipe of a commercial aircraft [that is burning alternative fuels],” said Bruce Anderson, who is a scientist with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He is also the project scientist for the Alternative Aviation Fuel Experiment, also known as AAFEX.
A DC-8 based at Dryden in Edwards, California, is the test vehicle. DC-8’s engine operations are well-documented and well-understood. The airplane is on the ground for the tests. This airplane is tested on both fuels; one fuel is derived from natural gas and another from coal. Researchers are testing 100 percent synthetic fuels and 50-50 blend of synthetics and regular jet fuel. Almost all previous testing has considered only blends. Researchers are mainly focusing on engine performance and aircraft emissions.
Why NASA is interested in synthetic fuels? Because it is considered to be relatively clean fuel. It is thought that synthetic fuels create fewer particles and other harmful emissions than standard jet fuel. If this can be proved true then use of synthetic fuels will reduce the air pollution around airports.