First Civil Jet Flies on 100 Percent Non-Food Biofuel
Canada's National Research Council and the Canadian Space Agency have used the Falcon 20 jet, with modified hydraulic and aircraft fuel systems, for performing parabolic flight maneuvers in microgravity experiments. (Source: Canadian Space Agency)
Ann, aviation fuels are the purest form of crude oil with a higher cost. So any alternate to crude oil based aviation fuel will have a greater impact on aviation sector. What about the cost factor?, if cost is less than crude oil, then obliviously it will helpful for the low cost carriers.
Mydesign, specific prices were not mentioned, but the fact that this is a crop being grown industrially in large quantities bodes well. Applied Research Associates says the ReadiJet fuel is "low cost" due to the catalytic hydrothermolysis process, http://www.ara.com/fuels/CH-Technology-Status.html which "provides a net cost savings compared to straight hydrotreating and hydrocracking processes. The cost savings result from the reduction of hydrogen and catalyst cost consumption and the production of high-value chemicals." To me, what's most important is the fact that this fuel's performance is good enough to work unblended.
Ann, I find it interesting that Canada is looking at these crops. They generally only grow in tropical, or semi-tropical, regions. One that I am familiar with is jatropha. While it is being used, and is touted as a plant that can be turned into aviation fuel, its impact is very small.
Another issue with any crop that is grown on land is that, although the crop is not a food crop, it can compete with food crops for land. Algae and seaweed do not have this problem.
Lou, it's not tropical areas where these Brassica plants and their relatives grow, which would be much too moist, but arid and semi-arid regions, many of which are near the equator. Brassica carinata, the one described in the article, is also called Ethiopian mustard, for instance. A variety of wild mustard even grows in the foothills of the San Francisco Bay Area every spring on very poor, dry, non-irrigated soil used for horse and cattle pastures. The point is, it does not compete with agricultural crops, which aren't grown, or likely to be grown, on the same poor soil where the Brassica grows. There are several species with these characteristics being considered or used for biofuel.
Ann, thanks for the clarfiication. By tropic I mean the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, not necessarily a wet area. This is where a lot of, but not all, of the type of land that might be useful for this crop. It still doen not correspond with any area of Canada, which is interesting. They have plenty of oil and lots of land. I would have thought they would be looking at crops appropriate to their climate.
Lou, thanks for the clarification. The fact that not all semi-arid areas are found between those two Tropics plus the fact that wild mustard grows in semi-arid areas in the SF Bay Area tells us that the plant family can grow wild outside of the "tropics" as you've defined them. Even more likely when engineered by humans in one way or another. Maize (corn) is a perfect example: it began as a radically different plant in Mexico and several hundreds of years later was cultivated in astonishing variety all the way from the tropics to the Northern Plains. So I'm not sure why you conclude that this plant is not suited to the Canadian climate.
Nice article, Ann. This test flight is good news no matter where the biofuel comes from. It's a step is a positive direction. Different crop growers will experiment with crops that match efficiency and regulation as they move on and expand biofuels programs.
Thanks, Rob. I think regardless of any other factors or considerations, the fact that this jet flew successfully on 100% biofuel is a very encouraging development. The jump from 30 to 50% in blends to 100% is insanely high, and a major first.
Ann, outside of the potential cost and availability issues, are there any technical reasons that a biofuel cannot be substituted 100% for aviation purposes? Other than the pervasive smell of french fries at the airports, of course... :)
Zippy, the smell of french fries may be prevalent in recycled cooking oil from restaurants used in cars with converted engines, but it's got nothing to do with commercial biofuels. Biofuels are derived from specifically grown crops, food-based or otherwise, produced with a variety of processes. To date, the main reasons biofuels have been blended with petro-based fuels have been a) performance and b) cost.
I agree, Ann. The whole business of creating biofuels will likely go through many permutations before the industry settles on a few paths that are efficient and meet evolving regulations. This test, however, is just one more indication that there will be a significant biofuel industry.
As Mydesign asked earlier, what's the cost? Fuel cost is an airline's biggest expense. How much will these biofuels save them? If there's no savings, there's no way they will adopt its use. I hope taxpayers won't have to subsidise this like the current $2.21/gal hidden tax we're getting stuck with using ethenol blends in our cars.
jhankwitz, I don't know where you live, but I'm in California, with the highest gasoline costs in the nation. While I'd rather not pay more for anything--who would?--I pay more for gasoline without complaint knowing that we are meeting higher standards for clean air.
Thanks for clarifying, jhankwitz. What will get costs down is higher volumes, which means we have to start somewhere. I think this is one of those areas where government can help, and apparently the Canadians (and Europeans) agree.
This is great news! Advancements in bio fuel are the way forward for reducing dependence on oil and running cleaner vehicles across the board. Bravo to the airline industry for doing this type of research. I personally hope it leads to more success in the future and eventually the predominant use of this kind of biofuel. Thanks for covering.
Excellent Post Ann. I think this is a great step in the right direction. Every engineer realizes we are years away, if ever, from eliminating our complete dependence upon fossil fuels BUT, advances such as this can insure we maintain usable quantities for future generations. Finding a suitable substitute for food grade biomass is truly a significant breakthrough. As with every thing else, I suspect the cost will lessen as time goes by the technology to improve yields will increase. Again--great article.
Thanks, bobjengr. Using any substance in huge quantities for making fuel that we also use as a resource for something else will pose problems unless it's something we want to get rid of, such as CO2. I see all of these attempts as not necessarily the ultimate answer, but as part of the learning process and as possible partial answers.
Ann, I agree. Compared to other fuels, modern-day biofuels are in their infancy. Who knows what the picture will look like 50 years from now - but if we don't experiment a bit - we won't have any alternatives to petroleum. It's an experiment and ultimately market forces will prevail.
Thanks, Scott. I agree about the experimental aspect. However. I don't think I want to leave the health of the environment up to "market forces." Neither do the Europeans or the Japanese, among many others.
Oklahoma has this nasty invasive tree, Eastern Red Cedar. It was imported during the dustbowl as windbreak, which it did. Once the dust died down, the stuff has invaded pasturland, cropland, and national forests. It reduces the ground under it's needles to unusability by even cocroaches! Wildlife, grass, wheat, not even alfalfa will grow under it.
A test of it's shavings for biofuel resulted in very favorable grade of JetBioFuel.
Now all Oklahoma needs is a bit of investment to get the project off the ground.
Rocky, I've heard of several proposals to turn invasive plants--even kudzu--into biofuel, so one might think why not red cedar, too. Sounds like red cedar is a candidate performance-wise. However, there's been concern about invasive plants escaping and causing even more of a problem than they did as a semi-wild pest. Kudzu, for example, escaped and became a huge problem only after farmers were paid to grow it as a hedge against erosion: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/23/invasive-grasses-as-biofuel-scientists-protest/
I'm not talking about planting the stuff! Red Cedar consumes about 700 acres per DAY! We need to get a program going for simply harvesting it, to try to contain it. Then wrap it for the trasnport to processing plant, where it could be pulverized into carbon products, instead of CO2.
It also explodes in wildfire conditions, creating far nastier fires than native grasses alone.
The stuff reminds me of Mesquite, out west. Greasewood, some call it Hmmmm, maybe both would produce good jet fuel!
We've got some really invasive plants here in my part of the Golden State. One that's consumed acres in my area is scotch broom: it's also a horrible wildfire hazard, as we re-discovered again a few years ago when it seemed like the whole state was burning up. There are teams of dedicated volunteers who go out in all kinds of weather to uproot it, and other bad guys, from state parks and other wild areas. I wonder if there are similar programs in OK?
Assuming the right process is found, you're right about the potential value of these plants as biofuel. But the 200 ecology, wildlife biology, and forestry scientists quoted in the NYT article I sent a link to are rightfully concerned. Plants are harder to control and domesticate than animals, and the risk of their pollen or seed/rootstock escaping is well illustrated by the kudzu example. Figuring out how to harvest what's already there as biomass and turning it into fuel might be a more useful and worthy research project for eradication.
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