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Monday, March 16, 2015

HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO SUSTAINABLE AVIATION?

Throughout much of my professional career I have attempted to develop options to conventional jet fuel.  It was 40 years ago that I was involved with growing algae in raceways for this purpose.  

I even went to work for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga from 1979-1982 because Hawaii was worried that our tourism economy could be jeopardized by the fickle price of petroleum.  This was at the time of the Second Energy Crisis.  The result was the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act, which spurred Department of Defense and NASA expenditures for the National Aerospace Plane and leading to formation of the U.S. Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel, which I chaired more than two decades ago.

These details can be found in my hydrogen chapter of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth.  Plus, in 2009 I published in the Huffington Post:

     THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE AVIATION

Jet fuel is made by distilling petroleum, removing unwanted components such as sulfurs, and adding compounds to enhance performance, then selectively blending the yield into Jet A,  Jet A-1 and military grades.  The carbon in the mix varies from 8 to 16. The recent U. S. Gulf Coast price has significantly dropped ($/gallon):

    Aug 2014    2.84
    Sep 2014    2.73
    Oct 2014     2.46
    Nov 2014    2.30
    Dec 2014    1.80
    Jan 2015    1.50
    Feb 2015    1.76
    Today         1.70

Historically, the price remained below $1/gallon until 2003 (as low as $0.50/gallon in 1998), jumping to $3/gallon from 2008 to 2014:


An effort is being made, however, to supplement cleaner and synthetic fuels to reduce global warming.  Largely driven by the military and a few airline companies, a combination of price volatility and high replacement cost has discouraged any comprehensive attempt to develop synthetic options.  The CME quotes the price of petroleum in December 2023 at $68.43.  If oil remains at this price, interest in developing clean options will shrivel.  If the temperature of Planet Earth leaps and a serious carbon tax becomes an international driver, progress will be swift.

Promising announcements regularly pop up:
  • Jet fuel from algae by DARPA in 2010, which remains today much, much too expensive to produce.
  • A new molecule (right) developed in Sweden to make jet fuel 30% more efficient, also in 2010, but nothing much has happened.
  • Last week in Renewable Energy World:  A New Path to Affordable Jet Fuel?    Please click on that article.  Pardon me for being a bit jaded.
I remain convinced that it will take a totally different type of airship to wean ourselves away from fossil based jet fuel.  Hydrogen, perhaps, initially for faster moving dirigibles, as, perhaps, the H2 Clipper:


While I can hope for some early commercialization, I have not seen anything particularly credible to give me supreme confidence.

So the quest to replace fossil fuel-based jet fuel will continue on parallel paths:  biofuel R&D for clean jetfuel and a next generation hydrogen-powered airship.  I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid this transition will take many decades.

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