The Greening of Aviation?

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Was it only last fall that people were chanting “drill, baby, drill!”, and declaring everyone from the government to your grandmother must “go green!”?  Remember $8.00 a gallon 100LL and paying for pillows and blankets on US commercial flights? 

Given the furor over global warming and energy prices, how is it possible that an aviation bio-fuel revolution is quietly proceeding with so little fuss and fanfare?

Here’s a taste of what has been going on, pretty much under the radar of mainstream media in the aviation bio-fuel revolution.  January, 2009 a Japan Airlines (JAL) airliner completed a 1.5 hour demo flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport powered by a combination of camelina, jatrophe and algae.

In December, 2008 Air New Zealand flew two hours on a 50/50 mix of jatropha biodiesel and standard A1 jet fuel.

In November, 2008 a plane flew from Reno, Nevada to Leesburg Florida, flying the first 1776 miles on 100% bio-diesel and the remaining 710 miles on a 50/50 mix of bio-diesel and standard jet fuel.

In October, 2008 Aviation Magazine published a story on the Department of Defense and the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) claims of a 100% renewable jet fuel capable of replacing JP-8.

In August, 2008 an F-15 Strike Eagle flew out of Robins Air Force Base in Georgia on a 50/50 mixture of JP-8 and a natural gas based synthetic fuel.

Why the apparent disinterest by the media on this tangible progress toward effective bio-fuel for aviation? 

Some say the amount of land set aside for growing bio-fuel crops may be contributing to a world wide food shortage.  Others are concerned that bio-fuel production may actually increase global warming.  It could be as simple as short term memory loss. Finding alternative fuel sources which seemed critically important with gas at the pump at $4.00 a gallon, is all but forgotten now that prices have come down.

This crisis will pass, and fuel prices will go back up.  So those of us with a stake in the future of aviation need to pay attention and press forward.  Will bio-fuel be the ultimate answer?   No one really knows yet, but many are touting camelina,  jatropha, algae and celulosic ethanol.

Camelina, for instance, may combat rising emissions while adding to food production and crop yields.  It has actually been shown to be an excellent rotational crop, boosting the yield of subsequent crops such as wheat by up to 15%.  It can be grown on marginal land, needs very little water and is viable in cold regions such as Montana and Canada and Europe.  It is estimated bio-diesel made from camelina could be sold for around $2.00 per gallon, compared to $3.00 per gallon for soy or corn based ethanol.

According to a spokesman for JAL, who used a mixture of bio-fuel and jet fuel for their groundbreaking demonstration flight in January, “the bio-fuel was a combination of three second-generation bio-fuel feedstocks which do not compete with natural food or water sources and do not contribute to deforestation practices.”

Turning to personal craft, Pipistrel, a Slovenian aircraft company, is working on a two-passenger electric aircraft.  The Taurus Electro is said to be capable of climbing to 6,000 feet, traveling 1,000 miles in a day with a lithium-polymer battery which takes about as long to recharge as a cell phone.

With graduations of aerospace engineers down 57% in the US since 1990 the US may be taking a back seat to Europe and Asia in making air travel more sustainable in the coming years.  Never the less, the future of innovation in aviation is going strong and it’s looking pretty green from here.

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