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The Future of Biofuel in Aviation



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About a mile up the road from my house is a pond where I like to go cast a line and relax for some quiet time. The fishing is not bad, it was better before all the pond scum began forming. All that algae has to have some good use in this world, but it certainly doesn't help a fisherman. It's a safe bet you're wondering why I'm talking fishing when you're thinking flying, stay tuned.

Your typical jet engine doesn't know the difference between jet fuel that was refined from petroleum and jet fuel produced from biofuel. Biofuel is just a fancy term for something that's been around for a very long time. In most cases biofuel is a fuel that has been produced from a biomass resource like corn, soybeans or even wood. Biodiesel from used cooking oil is one of the most commonly known biofuels, along with good old corn ethanol.

Petroleum based jet fuel, alongside gasoline, is a scarce resource and being non-renewable will only become more expensive as reserves are depleted from global oil fields. "Green" jet fuel is renewable. We can make more of it. That's the big difference between aviation fuel as we've known it and aviation fuel of the future. The most promising developments in production of green jet fuel are made from biomass sources people don't use for food. Fuel made from inedible plant oils and from algae are in the development and testing phases now.

Testing alternatives to petroleum jet fuel has been going on for the last 15 years or so. Jet fuel used by the military is known as JP-8. Not only aircraft, but some military ground vehicles with turbine engines also use JP-8 fuel. Tests conducted in recent years by the Department of Defense and UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell, indicates the suitability of green jet fuel as a substitute for JP-8, with comparable properties to the petroleum based fuel. With further development the green jet fuel may become available for commercial aircraft use. Actually, in late 2008 and early 2009 successful testing was conducted using various blends of biofuel based jet fuel and petroleum based jet fuel in actual commercial airliner jet engines.

Since green jet fuel is such a new technology, the availability will be low until the refineries and delivery system needed to process the feedstock is developed to scale. Blending of green fuel with petroleum fuel will most likely be the method of introduction into the market. The non-food feedstocks in development are derived from Jatropha, Camelina and special varieties of algae.

One of the great concerns about biofuels in general is the potential for competition with the global food market and resulting price pressure. Soybean and corn markets are the primary concerns. Fortunately with the development of biofuel processing technology, fuels like green jet fuel and green gasoline can be produced from non-food biomass, with special strains of algae providing much promise. Algae based feedstock offers additional benefits of consuming carbon dioxide and waste nitrogen from other processes, and production in special tanks on otherwise non-arable land. These secondary sources of biomass are making the future of biofuel and its use in aviation very promising.

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