Alternative Energy Sources Could Help Aviation Industry Clean Up Its Act

Researchers aim to lessen air travel’s environmental damage

3 June 2016

The aviation industry has helped bring people together—bridging barriers, boosting employment, creating industries, and enabling global commerce. In addition to facilitating communication and transportation among all corners of the world, it employs about 8.7 million people and contributes US $2.2 trillion to the global gross domestic product. Unfortunately, it also is having a tremendous negative impact on the environment.

About 10 percent of the fossil fuels burned today are used by the aviation industry, whose fuel requirements are expected to triple by 2050 and account for almost 19 percent of the energy resources used then, according to Scott Cohen, a professor of tourism management at the University of Surrey, in Guilford, England. Currently flights produce about 705 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, threatening the world’s nonrenewable energy reserves as well as the global climate. The problem has inspired researchers to develop cleaner, more eco-friendly ways to fly.

BRING ON THE BIOFUELS

Scientists at the University of Surrey, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and the NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands, are exploring new forms of alternative energy that can replace jet fuel. The collaborative research efforts, which are being recorded by translators, are aiming for zero-emission flights.

The researchers have been looking at ways to use sustainable plants to produce less harmful types of fuel. Oil from the flowering plants Camelina and Jatropha, for example, can be extracted and converted to biofuel. Green algae can be used to make biofuel, too. The combination of those three sources could reduce the aviation industry’s carbon footprint by up to 80 percent.

Hydrogenated esters and fatty acids that are produced using any form of native oil, like from Jatropha seeds, are the most promising candidates.

The Project Solaris initiative by Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) aims to develop a renewable jet fuel business sector in South Africa. The project involves sourcing fuel from solaris, a nicotine-free tobacco hybrid cultivated in South Africa. The project will enable local tobacco farmers to make a profit without having to sell their crops to cigarette companies, says Ian Cruickshank, an environmental specialist at SAA.

Another project underway is the Initiatives for Next Generation Aviation Fuels (INAF), a collaboration among Japanese aerospace and finance companies including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, and Japan Petroleum Explorations. INAF research published last year shows algae and seaweed are capable of producing biofuels suitable for use in commercial aircraft.

INAF says it hopes to nationalize the country’s aviation biofuel industries by 2020, when the Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Tokyo. The Olympics are expected to attract millions of tourists to the city—most arriving by plane.

SOLAR FLIGHT

Several commercial aviation companies have conducted test flights powered by alternate fuels. In 2011 Lufthansa was the first to fly a commercial airplane that used biofuel.

This year, on 3 March, a two-man aircraft kindled new hope among researchers and environmentalists who are looking to make zero-emission flights a reality. The Solar Impulse 2 airplane took flight from Nagoya, Japan. After covering a whopping 7,200 kilometers, the solar-powered plane landed safely in Hawaii, near Honolulu.

Although the SI2 has a wingspan greater than a 747’s, it weighs only 2,300 kilograms, compared with a 747’s 333,400 kg. The flight to Hawaii, part of an around-the-globe journey, was powered only by solar panels, devoid of any conventional fuel.

Environmentalist Kasia Davidson is an active member of the National Association of Environmental Professionals. She has taken part in several conferences and seminars organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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