Great expectations for alternative fuels in 2009

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Aviation's search for alternative fuels finds itself well positioned moving into 2009 with active programmes, a singular focus on liquid fuels with roadmap commitments, solvent end customers and, most importantly, a resolute incoming US government.

"Clearly, the economic climate hurts private investment, but the fact the incoming administration views energy investments as a solution for jobs, security and the environment suggests that industry may actually see a net positive on the investment front with aviation offering early high-profile success stories to those who engage," says Richard Altman of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) consortium, which is doing much of the work to get operators, developers and regulators to sing from the same development hymn sheet.

Altman says there are some realistic 2009 achievements to expect on the fuels front from both the USA and its international collaborators with some of these already "done deals" and others that will be commitments to continue roadmap studies.

Expect the following in 2009:

An intensified focus on aviation as a "first mover" for bio-derived liquid hydrocarbon fuels driven by international airlines and the US Air Force, independent of any short-lived fuel price reductions.

High levels of activity on alternative fuels on both sides of the Atlantic by the major international specification groups (ASTM in the USA and the UK Ministry of Defence's DEFSTAN group).

In the USA, ASTM is aiming to pass a new fuel D-XXXX specification that should facilitate and simplify approval of new alternative fuels in the future.

The formal approval of generic Fischer-Tropsch fuel blends as the first new fuel under that new D-XXXX specification in the USA and parallel activity in the UK DEF STAN specification.

Several broad feedstock-centric research roadmaps and programmes to ensure biofuel supply development is co-ordinated between aviation, agriculture and renewable fuel interests.

Significant US government-backed infrastructure investments in biofuel pilot plants and possibly full-scale production facilities for all candidates having acceptable environmental candidate fuels performance on a carbon lifecycle basis.

Growth and alignment of initiatives outside the USA with CAAFI via European Union research and development programmes and International Civil Aviation Organisation workshops.

Consensus on an environmental framework for civil aircraft using analysis tools developed by USAF and regulators together with key universities in consultation with environmental groups and potential producers for candidate feedstocks and processes. In particular, it will be necessary to agree the rules for calculating lifecycle (well-to-wake) carbon dioxide emissions for different fuel source and processing routes.

Quantification of particulate reduction benefits for alternative and sustainable bio-fuels.

The launch of an airport handbook produced by the Airport Cooperative Research Program to facilitate airport/airline/distributor/fuel supplier costs and benefits.

While those all-important high-profile flight demonstrations of early-stage sustainable biofuel blends will end with Japan Airlines' scheduled biofuel demonstration flight on 30 January which will test a 50% blend of biofuel refined in part from the energy crop camelina on one of four P&W JT9D engines, the only scheduled event left in 2009 is the Rolls-Royce testbed initiative with British Airways.

Although strictly Earth-bound, this will give very much more precise information about performance characteristics through using sophisticated instrumentation not available on flight-test aircraft. Trials should be complete by March and the results should provide the principal standards-setting bodies with an invaluable set of data.

"2008 was very much about the remarkable growth in confidence and a certain can-do attitude that wasn't there before with biofuel trials progressing from using one of four engines to one of two on single-aisle aircraft. People are also now starting to talk about significantly reduced timescales for higher percentages of alternative fuels in the blends," says Professor Chris Wilson of the UK's University of Sheffield.