JUL 24, 2015 03:47 AM PDT

Could Plant-Based Fuels Power a Plane?

Planes, trains and automobiles. That's pretty much how travelers get around, but with the global economy expanding the way it is, trains and automobiles are falling way behind. How do most people get places in this new global marketplace? Hands down, planes are how most people get from here to there, because the distances traveled for business and vacations are getting longer every day.
A jet in Melbourne powered by a mix of jet fuel and biofuel made from recycled cooking oil
However the environment is a concern too. Automotive technology is developing hybrid cars, cars that run on biofuels and even all electric cars. Trains too, both passenger and freight, are taking advantage of cleaner energy sources. The planes though? Not so much. With the number of travelers crossing the globe via airplanes expected to double in the next twenty years, airlines are turning to biofuels, but it won't be an easy change.

Converting automobiles to cleaner fuels is a much easier task. Cars are lighter than planes, obviously, and don't need enough power to thrust a hundred of passengers and their heavy luggage thousands of feet into the sky and then deliver them safely to destinations across the world. Oh, and don't forget, they all need to be served peanuts and Coke. Getting a load like that off the ground requires a lot of energy and no amount of electricity or other cleaner fuels can manage it. Right now, jet fuel, a highly combustible liquid made from limited fossil resources is the only material that gets those birds off the ground.

So why change at all? Well, the airline industry's own trade group has set some pretty ambitious goals to reduce fuel emissions. By the year 2020, the industry hopes to stop the increase in emissions and buy 2050, the goal is to have emissions of carbon dioxide slashed by half of what they were in 2005.

Normally, the first line of plant-based biofuel would be corn, but the problem there is that while it is readily available and easy to make, the actual environmental benefit isn't large enough to get the airlines to their goals. In addition to the airlines self-imposed restrictions, there is the very real possibility that national and international governments will begin to enact laws with very strict emission standards and the airlines have to be ready for that.

Corn might not be an option, but other plants could help. There are biofuels that are referred to as "advanced" biofuels that are made from agricultural waste products, organic trash or even specific crops grown just for the purpose of creating fuel, instead of for human consumption. Even the algae that grows in the ocean has a possible use as fuel.
Boeing, United Airlines, Southwest and FedEx are all exploring ways to be involved in the creation of a sustainable biofuel that can power jet engines. In an interview with the Associated Press, Julie Felgar, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing said, "It's about retaining, as an industry, our license to grow."

While the airline industry's commitment to finding alternative fuels is forward thinking and responsible, their efforts might not be enough. According to the International Air Transport Association, airlines in the United States burn approximately 45 gallons of fuel each day. FedEx, the largest cargo airline in the world burns over 1.1 billion gallons a year of non-renewable jet fuel.

While there have been many bumps in the road towards lowering airplane emissions and finding cleaner fuels, the industry remains committed to finding a better way to fly the traveling public where they need to be. It's a long-term issue and the solutions will be long term as well according to Felgar, who was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I'm not Pollyannaish about this. I'm not optimistic, I'm not pessimistic, but I'm determined."

Check out the video below to learn more about airlines and biofuel research.
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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