As we all know, the price of automotive gasoline has been rising steadily for decades, and most notably over the past few years. In recent years, prices have reached as high as $4.50 a gallon in some areas, and currently in most areas of the U.S. prices are stuck now in the high $3.00 range. Obviously, this increase in gas prices has caused difficulty for people who need to drive to work, among other places, but it is also becoming an economic problem for people who need to fly to their destinations. Perhaps the only benefit of these high fuel prices has been the increased interest in green alternatives for transportation, including biofuels. These biofuels have been gaining prominence in the automotive field, with more and more cars being designed to burn them and more places selling such fuel. But what about airplanes? Is it possible that biofuels can be a valid choice for the future of air travel? Let’s explore that possibility.
The Biofuel Basics For those new to biofuel technology, biofuels are a gasoline and diesel alternative that is created out of organic materials. Most often these materials include vegetable oil and other vegetable material, though biofuels can be made from animal bi-products or fat. Biodiesel, for example, is made by processing used vegetable oil, resulting in a fuel that can be directly burned in many diesel vehicles. This biodiesel burns more cleanly than petroleum based fuels.
Biofuels have been used successfully in a variety of ground transportation vehicles for decades. In fact, many people make biodiesel from restaurant oil waste and burn it in their personal vehicles. Of course, creating such fuels for airplane fuel would involve some additional complications.
Airline Issues Airplanes are one of the biggest contributors to global warming, as airplanes burn hundreds or thousands of gallons of jet fuel for even brief flights. By turning to biodiesel, airplanes could greatly reduce their carbon footprint. Additionally, they could reduce their reliance on foreign oil and possibly help stabilize the price of jet fuel, thus stabilizing volatile air travel prices. However, creating jet fuel is not as simple as cleaning some vegetable oil in the backyard.
Airplanes have very specific fuel needs, including a requirement for an extremely hot burn. Additionally, rigid design and maintenance regulations have been put in place throughout the industry to protect those who are flying. Thus, developing a sustainable, approved biofuel with wide application to a variety of airplanes will be a continual challenge, probably for years to come. Let’s look at where we are so far.
Research and practice into bio-jet fuel has been ongoing for some time. One type of fuel known as hydro-treated renewable jet fuel (HRJ) that has been positively tested is made of various plant oils, including coconut and palm oil. This fuel was tested in 2008, but only 5% of the fuel in the test plane was HRJ fuel. So many nuts were required to make the fuel that it is not yet economically viable, even if it were usable as fuel. Sugar has also been used to create bioutanol and isobutanol, through fermentation. These technologies are still in development. Algae is also being researched as a potential bio-mass for jet fuel development. This option does seem environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly as far as burning, however, tests so far have proven it to be extremely expensive and questions have arisen about damaging aquatic life with algae harvesting.
The Future of Airlines What it comes down to is the future of biofuels for jet fuel is promising, but still requires a lot of research, development and testing. Biofuels offer an obvious avenue of sustainability and cleaner burning, however the environmental impacts of harvesting biomass as well as the economic benefits need to be explored. Some sources, however, estimate that biofuel will be a staple, providing at least some significant portion of our jet fuel by 2020 or so.