Sunday, February 08, 2009

Powering Planes on Plant Oil

The Boeing 747 belonging to Japan Airlines took off from Tokyo’s busy Haneda Airport on an overcast and rainy day in late January and circled over the Pacific Ocean, powered in part by vegetable oils and pond scum.

It was the last of four demonstration flights that have taken place over the past year in four corners of the world, all using four different blends of biofuels, powering four makes of engines. The purpose, of course, was to determine whether a modern jet liner can fly with a part of its fuel composed of renewable energy.

On landing Captain Kobayashi said that the performance of the bio-fueled engine seemed indistinguishable from the other three engines. That echoed reports from the three previous flights and is exactly what promoters of sustainable aviation fuels want to hear.

The goal said Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable resources and chemicals for Honeywell UOP, is to develop a “drop-in” generic biofuel. By drop-in she means a fuel that requires no engine modifications and is chemically identical to ordinary jet fuel. It can be used as economic conditions dictate.Nicole Piasecki, president of Boeing Japan, said before the JAL test flight that her company hoped to have biofuel certified for use on “revenue-generating flights” in three to four years.

The JAL test used a blend of 84% camelina oil, 16% jatropha oil and under one percent algae oil. The three biofuels were mixed 50-50 with kerosene in one of the aircraft’s four engines. It was the first demonstration flight using camelina oil and the first one to use a blend of three different biofuels. Put another way, the JAL aircraft was powered by fuel made from feedstock grown in Montana (camelina), Tanzania, (jatropha) and Hawaii (algae oil).

Camelina is a vegetable oil crop grown mostly in the northern plains of the U.S. and western Canada. It is technically a “traditional” vegetable oil crop but is considered a second-generation biofuel as it has little food value and is used primarily as a biofuel feed stock.

It was sourced from Sustainable Oils, a biofuel company based in Bozeman, Mont. and Seattle. Chief Executive Tom Todaro was in Tokyo for the demonstration and said that his company has already contracted with farmers to plant 10,000 acres dedicated to camelina. “The infrastructure is in place”.

“By 2011 we hope to be making 100 million gallons of camelina oil a year and a billion gallons ten years after that. Of course, it will not be in double-digit figures as a percentage of petroleum-based jet fuel used in aviation. But it is a beginning,” he said. The aviation industry consumes about 240 million gallons of jet fuel a day.

Camelina grows on arable land, and thus could be considered as competing with food staples, mainly wheat. But it is now used as a rotation crop, planted on land that is allowed to lie fallow to absorb moisture in dry wheat-growing areas. The crop itself does not require much water. All of the tests so far have been with “second-generation biofuels” that is non-staple food stocks.

Virgin Atlantic in February became the first airline to demonstrate that a commercial aircraft could fly on a biofuel, flying from London to Amsterdam on a partial mix of coconut and babassu oils. Air New Zealand followed up in December using jatropha plant oil, and Continental in Houston flew a two-engine B737, on a mix of jatropha and algae oil.

The results of the four test flights are being watched closely in the industry that is determined to wean itself from ultimately finite supplies of conventional crude oil and shift to renewable and low emission fuels.

Algae oil is the greenest of the biofuels , being 100 percent carbon free, and it does not threaten to displace regular agricultural crops since it is grown on pools of water. However, it is farthest from mass production. Jatropha is said to have about half of the carbon emissions of conventional fuel oils.

The airlines began to look seriously at potential new fuel sources when crude oil prices went through the roof last summer leading some airlines to file for bankruptcy and caused other to find ways to cut costs or and fuel surcharges. Although prices have slackened considerably, the industry does not want to get burned again.

During the one-hour flight the JAL crew put the aircraft through several normal and sub-normal maneuvers, including quickly accelerating, decelerating, and stopping and restarting the engine. This activity conforms with the maneuvers that other test flights have been put through.

All the demonstration flights were taken on jets made by Boeing which has been coordinating all of the tests. “We’re the common thread, enabling the [biofuels] industry,” said Darren Morgan, Director of Biofuels Strategy for the Boeing Commercial Aircraft Co. “We help bring feed stock and fuel processors and airlines together.”

He noted that there had been no untoward incidents in the four demonstration flights so far. “The fuels have met or exceeded expectations.” The JAL test would seem to be in that pattern as well, although that is based mainly on first impressions from the pilots and not a thorough evaluation.


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