All-Biofuel Jet Flight Was Way Clean

Remember that spate of biofuel-powered airline flights around a year ago, in the U.S., in Europe and even across the Pacific? One thing you might not have noticed is that all those flights were done using a blend of biofuel and conventional jet fuel. It wasn’t until this past October that the first 100 percent biofuel-powered civil jet flight happened – and now an analysis of the flight is showing some real emissions benefits.

The Oct. 29, 2012, flight was pulled off by the National Research Council of Canada. Canada is particularly interested in promoting the possibilities for bio jet fuel because its southern prairies are said to be ideal for growing the oilseed crop, a version of Brassica carinata, used as a feedstock. According to the NRC, in 2012, more than 40 commercial growers in Western Canada were contracted to grow over 6,000 acres of the crop to be used in to make pure green jet fuel.

100 biofuel flight

Jet powered by 100 percent biofuel tailed by aircraft collecting emissions data (image via National Research Council of Canada)

The Falcon 20 that did the flight – soaring 30,000 feet over Ottawa – was trailed by a second aircraft that collected data  on the emissions generated by the biofuel. According to the NRC:

Information collected in-flight and analyzed by a team of experts revealed an important reduction in aerosol emissions (50 percent) when using biofuel compared to conventional fuel. Furthermore, additional tests performed on a static engine show a significant reduction in particles (up to 25 percent) and in black carbon emissions (up to 49 percent) compared to conventional fuel. These tests also show a comparable engine performance, but an improvement of 1.5 percent in fuel consumption during the steady state operations. The jet’s engines required no modification as the biofuel tested in-flight meets the specifications of petroleum-based fuels.

In addition to the National Research Council of Canada, Agrisoma Biosciences Inc., Applied Research Associates, and the Canadian government’s Clean Transportation Initiatives and the Green Aviation Research and Development Network are funding this program.

“The flight went smoothly and the data collected enables us to better understand the impact of biofuel on the environment,” John R. McDougall, the NRC’s president, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our partners … to bring this effective energy solution to market. The final product will be a sustainable option for reducing aviation emissions.”

No word on the cost, however, which everyone involved in aviation biofuels – whether produce from oilseed crops, algae oil or recycled cooking oil – has conceded will be a huge barrier. And while the emissions from the plane were cleaner than conventional fuel, it would be interesting to see what a life-cycle assessment of the fuel would reveal.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.