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 Veggie Power: Plant-based Jet Fuel Outperforms Oil-based Jet Fuel
Posted by justin on Jun 19, 2009
Fleet & Industry
By Ángel González

To anybody who’s seen biodiesel turn into a mayonnaise-like substance in cold weather, the prospect of crossing the Atlantic on a jet propelled by biofuel sounds downright scary.

But a consortium made up of Boeing, engine makers and commercial airlines says that veggie fuel is not only good for the airplanes’ carbon footprint – it actually performs as well, if not better, than its petroleum-based equivalent. The issue is a crucial one for the airline industry, which has vowed to achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and whose fortunes are tightly tied to the volatile price of crude oil.

In 2008 and 2009, the consortium tested several blends of up to 50% biofuel in Boeing jets belonging to Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines. The blends were different combinations oil from jatropha (an oily seed plant that grows in arid climates), camelina (a fatty mustard-like seed) and algae, which reproduces prodigiously fast. 

The biofuels used in the tests were “drop-in”, meaning that engines didn’t require modification. Boeing says the blends didn’t damage the equipment, and actually proved to have more oomph, or “greater energy content” than standard jet fuel - meaning potentially better fuel economy. The greenhouse gas benefit was evident as well: a blend that included jatropha and camelina can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 65% to 80% from standard petroleum-based fuel, an executive summary of the consortium’s research said. 

Surprisingly, the freezing point of the plant-based fuel was between -56 and -63 centigrade – colder than petroleum-based jet fuels freezing point of between -40 and -47 centigrade. That should ease concerns about airplanes with frozen fuel mayo in their tanks. 

To quench the global aviation industry’s thirst with jatropha and camelina, says Boeing’s director of sustainable biofuels strategy Darrin Morgan, would require planting an area the size of Germany. But with some crop science and improved yields on these plants, the idea of using biofuels in airplanes “actually starts to add up,” he says.

And there’s one final, but kind of important, point: The cost of producing biofuels remains higher than the cost of jet fuel.
Foot notes: http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/06/17/veggie-power-plant%20-based-jet-fuel-outperforms-oil-based-jet-fuel
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