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April 24, 2013
Fed agencies report on bio avfuels

Two recent announcements appear to indicate the continuing interest of the federal government in developing drop-in bioaviation fuels (bio avfuels). 

In one news release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it has extended for 5 years its agreement to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to produce an economically viable bio avfuel for the aviation industry.  Also, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that is engaged in a series of airborne research projects to collect data on the emissions from aircraft using jet bioavfuel.

Follows Farm to Fly

The USDA/ATA announcement follows the “success” of the Farm to Fly program, which ran from 2010 to 2012.   The intent of Farm to Fly was to bring together the U.S. aviation community, multiple federal agencies, and other stakeholders to ensure that bioavfuels become an economical and environmentally preferred alternative to petroleum-based jet fuels in the near future. Farms to Fly defined drop-in bio avfuels as those that are derived from sustainable resources and that can enter the jet-fuel market fully intermixable and usable without changes to pipelines or storage facilities and without modifications to engines and aircraft. 

The USDA/ATA agreement prolongs the life of several undertakings started under Farm to Fly.  In one project, the agencies are exploring the use of forest and crop residues and other green feedstocks that could be processed by bio-refineries to produce jet fuels.  The two agencies have also developed a Feedstock Readiness Tool (FSRL), which the airline industry can use to track progress on the development and availability of agricultural and forest feedstocks.  According to the USDA, the FSRL can identify gaps in aviation biofuel supply chains due to delays in the development of the feedstocks to supply a particular conversion process or the development of a fuel conversion process as a market for feedstock.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is also running three projects to promote the use of nonfood biomass specifically for use in bio avfuel.  The projects include deriving feedstocks from hardwoods that are “purpose-grown,” from logging and thinning wastes, and from switchgrass and wood biomass.

Tracking contrails

NASA’s Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions (ACCESS) project involves flying NASA’s instrumented Falcon HU-25 jet behind a DC-8 at altitudes up to 40,000 feet.  In the first set of tests, which occurred over 3 weeks and concluded in late March 2013, the DC-8 was powered by conventional JP-8 jet fuel or a 50-50 blend of JP-8 and an alternative fuel of hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids taken from camelina plants. 

More than a dozen instruments mounted on the Falcon collected data on the soot and gases streaming from the DC-8, monitored the way exhaust plumes changed in composition as they mixed with air, and investigated the role emissions played in contrail formation.  According to NASA, ACCESS’s second phase is planned for 2014 to capitalize on lessons learned from the 2013 flights and will include more-extensive measurements.  Before ACCESS, NASA investigated exhaust from grounded aircraft supplied with bio avfuel.

Land-use concerns

The environmental community has offered conditional support for the development of bio avfuels.  The main concern is that the rush to develop the first generation of these fuels may lead to environmentally damaging land-use changes  such as deforestation of native forests to expedite the growth of new crops suitable for use in bio avfuel.  

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