Boeing looks to algae as alternative aviation fuel

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Massive cultivation of oil-rich, CO2-absorbing algae  pools covering an area equivalent to the size of Austria - or Maryland in the US - could hold the key to eliminating aviation’s contribution to global warming.

Speaking exclusively to, Boeing’s alternative fuel expert Dave Daggett explains that algae has been elevated by the US aircraft manufacturer to front-runner status in terms of its potential to become a viable alternative aviation fuel. 

The news comes as UK carrier Virgin Atlantic announced that it is to team up with Boeing, Virgin Fuels  and engine manufacturer GE Aviation to conduct a joint biofuel demonstration  on one of the airline’s Boeing 747-400s in 2008 which aims to develop sustainable fuel sources suitable for commercial jet engines.

“The major driver that we will be evaluating is the performance of these fuels so they meet all the certification requirements for a jet fuel, such as its freezing point,” says Daggett.

He said early tests may use biofuels derived from either soya or rapeseed rather than algae as these are advanced in development terms: “We might use them initially just to prove they can work but the large amount of land required to produce this as an alternative fuel and the carbon dioxide footprint generated during the production process will be important factors to take into consideration.”

Significant advances have already been made in the science of manipulating the metabolism of algae and the engineering of microalgae algae systems to produce large amounts of oil while absorbing equally impressive quantities of carbon dioxide.

The US Department of Energy’s Office of Fuels Development funded a program for almost two decades until 1996 to develop renewable transportation fuels from algae. The main focus of the program, know as the Aquatic Species Program  was the production of biodiesel from high lipid-content algae grown in ponds in the Arizona desert, feeding on waste CO2 from coal fired power plants.

Development was interrupted when oil prices fell, however, and the commercial need to develop an alternative was substantially reduced.

Some countries, including New Zealand, have continued to work on the production of fuel from algae,  and have made significant progress
“There are still some technical challenges to be overcome. If the costs of fossil fuels had remained high we would have solved some of the issues that algae still presents such as harvesting and water separation. It’s very doable, however. It all depends on the effort we want to put in to create a carbon-neutral fuel, but essentially it’s the right thing to do,” says Daggett.

He estimates that algae ponds covering an aggregated 34,000sq km located in a warm climate - a land bank equivalent to the size of the US state of Maryland or Austria  could reduce the carbon dioxide footprint generated by global aviation to zero.
“Boeing is going to be there to help fuel suppliers and their customers to commercialise biofuels. What we want to do is to create a lighthouse project so that we can help focus industry’s attention and efforts. What we are not going to do however is to get into the fuel business ourselves,” says Daggett.

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