Fly Green!

Richard Branson and Boeing heap hope-and hype-on biofuels.

Researchers have been looking far and wide for biofuel sources, including switchgrass. (University of Wisconsin)
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They turned out to have a full-fledged conference; that’s where the alternative fuel initiative came together. The group’s aim is to lean on fuel producers, urging them to put more effort into developing alternative fuels for aviation.

Members of the initiative are also drawing up standards for alternative fuel blends, so the Federal Aviation Administration can promptly certify the formulations for use. “We formed a posse,” Altman says. “Everybody raised their hands and said ‘I’m in.’ The level of cooperation has been unprecedented.” The initiative doesn’t have much of its own money to spend, but it’s propelling plenty of spending by the FAA and others.

The Transportation Research Board is calculating how a shift to alternative fuel will affect an airport’s economics and the FAA is paying for an environmental review of alternative fuel options. The initiative has set a goal of having a biofuel blend for jets approved by about 2016.

Oils from plants are most often cited as sources for alternative aviation fuels. But growing and delivering enough product to satisfy the fuel demand might be self-defeating.

The production and use of fertilizer, the need for long-distance hauling, and the operation of processing facilities might cause more ecological damage than it prevents.

“You don’t want to spend more energy trucking low-energy material around to get it to your plant than you end up in the fuel you produce,” says Douglas Kirkpatrick, who oversees biofuel projects for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA,which is spending more than $15 million on at least three aviation biofuel projects.

A team of researchers working for NASA calculated that a field of soybeans, a common biodiesel crop, big enough to cover Florida would replace merely 15 percent of the U.S. commercial jet fuel burned each year.

Even if such a harvest were practical, the soybeans would be taking away land for higher-value crops, including food plants, and thus driving up those costs.

But there may be other options. Researchers in Brazil are experimenting with a jet fuel that is made from the nuts of the babassu palm, a tree that’s already growing across millions of acres there.

The U.S. Department of Energy also studied algae, which grows quickly and densely while sucking up carbon dioxide, producing 150 or more times as much oil per acre as soybeans.

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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