A Move Toward Veggie Power Aloft

Posted by in Environment

Published: January 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — Burned by the cost of jet fuel, the aviation industry is trying everything from algae to camelina and jatropha as alternatives, but specialists say that some of the new fuels, which include coal, might simply trade one set of problems for another.

On Wednesday, Continental Airlines will test a fuel made from algae and jatropha, a tropical shrub with an oil-bearing seed, in a Boeing 737 jetliner, in a two-hour flight beginning and ending in Houston.

Leah Raney, an environmental affairs official at Continental Airlines, with a jatropha plant, which can be made into jet fuel.

The flight will be the first airline trial of algae, and, perhaps more important, the first use of biofuels in a twin-engine jet. (Air New Zealand flew a four-engine Boeing 747 last week with one engine on a 50 percent biofuel mix, and Japan Airlines will do the same in a few weeks as part of a series of tests including the flight on Wednesday.)

If the new fuel caused an engine to fail, that would be a bigger challenge in a plane with two engines than in one with four.

Continental plans to have the crew turn off and restart the right engine, the one running on the 50-percent blend of ordinary jet fuel and plant-based fuel. The crew will simulate breaking off an approach and going around, which demands high power from the engines, among other maneuvers. On board will be two pilots, a flight engineer and, because this is an experiment, 157 empty passenger seats.

Although jet fuel prices have dropped with crude oil, industry executives say they are determined to become less dependent on a single source of fuel in case prices rise again.

“It’s hard to plan a business, and buy expensive pieces of equipment that last for 20 or 30 years, when you have total uncertainty about the cost of your biggest expense,” said JohnP. Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major airlines.

At Pratt & Whitney, the engine manufacturer, Alan H. Epstein, vice president for technology and environment, said, “It’s the first time in the history of jet aviation that the world is seriously considering going to a totally new fuel.”

Mr. Epstein made the comment when oil cost more than $100 a barrel and repeated it Tuesday, when oil was back in the $50 range. Pratt, a unit of United Technologies, which has tested alternate fuels in its engines, and others in the aviation industry assert that they will pursue alternatives even in a period of low prices.

The three test flights involved several airlines; the Boeing Company; three engine makers, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce and General Electric; and the fuel maker, UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell. The companies will use the data to try to get the fuel certified as a drop-in replacement, meaning no changes would be needed to engines or other plane parts, or to the fueling infrastructure at the airports.

The International Air Transport Association has a goal of 10 percent alternative fuels by 2017. The Federal Aviation Administration is also encouraging the new fuels.

But the impact on price is uncertain. At Continental, David Messing, a spokesman, acknowledged that the price of the replacement fuel and of the fuel to be phased out were in flux.

“Until you have a full-scale producer and consumer market for biofuel, I don’t think you know the price,” he said. And economists say that biofuel added to the jet fuel supply, like ethanol added to the gasoline supply, will rise and fall in price with the value of the conventional fuel it displaces, at least until it is available in very large volumes.

So far, the volumes are small. Continental’s algae comes from a Hawaiian company called Cyanotech, which raises it as a nutritional supplement.

One oil substitute is already used in large volumes. Sasol, the South African coal company, for years produced semi-synthetic jet fuel, half from petroleum and half from coal, and pumped it into airliners leaving Johannesburg. In April 2008, the British Ministry of Defense approved the use of 100 percent synfuel, clearing the way for many airlines to use it.

The fuel has some advantages over traditional jet fuel, including extremely low sulfur levels, but when production is considered, jet fuel from coal produces substantially more carbon dioxide than jet fuel from oil.

Using a process similar to Sasol’s, a refinery in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf, is making a jet fuel substitute from natural gas. The process makes economic sense because the oil that is saved has more value than the coal or natural gas that is used.

Proponents say that because natural gas has relatively little carbon compared with its hydrogen content, its greenhouse gas production is not as bad as that of ordinary jet fuel. But environmentalists say that it substitutes one disappearing resource, natural gas, for another, oil.

At UOP, Jennifer S. Holmgren, director of renewable energy and chemicals, said fuel made from jatropha had only about half as much carbon dioxide effect as fuel from petroleum. This is significant because the European Union is trying to bring the airlines, including American airlines that fly trans-Atlantic, into a carbon dioxide reduction system. The American airlines are resisting, asserting that aviation rules must be made on a multinational basis, but they are seeking low-carbon fuels they can use.

Environmental advocates strongly favor low-carbon fuels, but only if they do not compete with food production.

And that turns into a trick question. Jatropha, for example, grows wild in tropical regions, on land not suitable for crops, and has a seed from which oil can be extracted. But the airlines and the F.A.A., in trying to make sure their efforts are an environmental improvement, hired a Yale researcher to see where the plant grows. His initial conclusion was that while jatropha could be grown on marginal land, it produces a lot more oil on cropland. That suggests that if it becomes popular, airlines will have to be careful to not squeeze out crops.

Another possibility is camelina, which produces a tiny, mustardlike seed from which oil can be extracted, It does not require extensive fertilization. Palm oil has also been tested.