Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alternative Fuels: How Aviation is Next in Line

British Airways Are Experimenting With Biofuels
Unlike vehicle emissions from cars, air travel accounts for a relatively small proportion of global C02 emissions. It does pale against many other forms of pollution, but it has become a standard bearer for a greener world in recent years. The environmental impact of all human activities is being measured in a campaign to cut emissions across the world. This has run from transportation, to heating, energy generation to food production. It has even looked at the environmental cost of drug production. With all this in mind, it's sensible to see if air transport can be made more fuel efficient and indeed, greener.

However, this proportion is steadily growing as aeroplane travel becomes an increasingly popular and accessible alternative to road and rail throughout the world, and as the automotive industry puts many measures in place to reduce its own carbon footprint. The industry doesn’t have the flexibility of the automotive industry to trial and test new technologies and fuel alternatives as freely; developing technology and insurance in aviation is a lot more costly and lengthy than that of automotive technology and motor trade insurance. Both British Airways and Etihad Airways have been experimenting with alternative biofuels, but replacing standard aviation fuels is a logistical and technical challenge as finding a truly efficient alternative would mean sourcing one that doesn’t require excessive transport, or land occupied by trees and crops. The big drive in reducing emissions from surface transport means that now the shift is turning to the aviation industry.

The industry is taking this seriously. Etihad Airways has teamed up with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and Boeing on a largescale research project that will aim to cultivate and bring to the mass market a sustainable biomass suitable to use as aviation fuel. The companies have together created the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Project, based in Abu Dhabi. It will find a solution by studying how the Earth’s existing resources, such as algae and arid landscapes can contribute to producing biofuel. They have already found one viable method; through a combination of salt water farming, mangrove forests and cultivating salicornia, they have found this can be a potential way of making biofuel.

In addition, British Airways has joined forces with American energy company, Solena, to build in East London Europe’s first sustainable jet fuel plant. The revolutionary plant will be built to convert various waste materials that would otherwise be destined for landfill into a gas substance. It will then convert the gas into liquid aviation fuel through a cutting edge new process called Fischer Tropsch synthesis. The facility, due for completion in 2014, will produce 16 million gallons of green jet fuel per year from 500,000 tonnes of waste. This is more than twice the amount required to convert all of British Airways’ flights from London City Airport carbon neutral.

Perfect flight

Meanwhile, air traffic control units are doing their bit to aid reduction of C02 emissions. The British NATS (National Air Traffic Control Service) has created the ‘perfect flight’ profile. This involves planes taking off and landing smoothly, and taking the most direct routes to their destinations. Descent would be made at a higher rate to save fuel. The NATS conducted a test flight recently between London and Edinburgh, which cut C02 emissions by a whole tonne.

Air France and Airbus also teamed up last year to combine several methods of fuel saving. Their Continuous Descent Approach, which cut down on biofuels and optimised air traffic management, cut emissions by half.

Next generation air planes

Boeing recently launched an exciting new model – the 787 Dreamliner – which cost around $32 billion to produce. It is made of light weight composition materials and uses around 20% less fuel than its older counterpart, the Boeing 767. Certain design features aid its green capabilities; for example its streamlined raked wings reduce wind drag. The inside cabins are also designed to be a lot more comfortable for the passenger, with the build material enabling better air quality and pressure, and more space.

Airbus is also showing its capabilities in the industry with the launch of its own next generation aeroplane, set for completion in 2013.

Engine technology

Aerospace companies are looking at the possibility of using open rotor engines, which could enable substantial emission reductions. These could be used on medium and short haul flights, which could make a huge difference to overall fuel emissions of the industry. Open rotor engines have been around for a long time, having been introduced in the seventies. The technology uses an advanced, multi-blade version of the traditional propeller, which improves efficiency. Introduction of these engines could reduce carbon emissions by up to 30%.

NASA is also playing its part, having long since run many research projects in aviation. It has created the N + 3 programme, which focuses on using technologies that are three generations more advanced than those in use today. In 2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked with the NASA N + 3 programme to produce an aircraft with the combination of two airframes that were merged to create a wide fuselage. This provided extra lift for rapid ascent and landing. 

It is clear that big steps are being taken by the aviation industry to follow in the footsteps of the automotive industry in reducing carbon emissions; it has taken some time to get there, but the technology that is being developed could revolutionise the way we travel and the impact it has on our planet.

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