Airline Alternative Fuel Trials, General Dynamics' Green Jet Engine

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Japan Airlines set out Friday to become the fourth airline in about one year to flight test a biofuel -- this one mixes jatropha oil, algae and camelina (flax) and follows recent flights by Continental (last week), Air New Zealand (December '08) and Virgin Atlantic (February '08). The latest test was scheduled for one hour flown aboard a Boeing 747-300 powered by both jet fuel and the biofuel blend. Continental's flight was similar, flying one engine of a 737-800 on jet fuel and the other on a 50/50 blend of traditional fuel and a jatropha/algae blend. Proponents encouraged by the promise of algae fuels are anxious to convert ponds (enough to cover Belgium) into algae farms, claiming that would provide enough fuel to feed all commercial airlines worldwide. The biofuels are seen as an attractive option for their negligible carbon footprint and sustainability. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has awarded $18.5 million to a division of General Dynamics to develop an engine built with parts that do not corrode, that will not use or release hazardous materials and generally offer a low emissions and noise signature.

The push in development of biofuels continues with a recent $25 million contract awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to SAIC. The company is being tasked to lead a team in development of "an integrated process for producing JP-8 from algae at a cost target of $3/gal." That doesn't appear to be coming soon. The two-phase program aims to conclude with the design and operation of a pre-pilot scale production facility. But another project that involves Boeing, Honeywell, and CFM hopes to see biofuel production levels in the hundreds of millions of gallons per year by 2012.