Chickens can't fly very far. But chickens — or the fatty parts left after processing —could be powering jet flights across the country and around the world in the next few years.
Or maybe it'll be algae, essentially pond scum, fueling them. Or jatropha, a smelly and poisonous subtropical plant with nicknames such as "black vomit nut" or "bellyache bush." Or liquid fuel converted from coal or natural gas, using a technology pioneered by Adolph Hitler's Nazi war machine.
Airlines, airplane and engine makers, the fledgling synthetic and biofuels industry, the U.S. government, environmentalists and even the big oil companies are working together to develop alternative fuels from these and other sources. Their goal: to replace a significant portion of the 19 billion gallons of kerosene that U.S. carriers burn in their planes each year and to do it by the end of the next decade. If they succeed, airlines will reduce their carbon footprint — and save big money that could possibly help hold down fares.
The U.S. Air Force also is pushing development. By next year, it wants all of its planes certified to operate on a 50/50 mix of conventional jet fuel, known as Jet A, and alternative fuel. Air Force generals don't want their planes grounded by a geopolitical event that pushes oil prices through the stratosphere or stops the flow of foreign oil.
The alternative fuel industry only now is beginning to move beyond the research-and-development stage into commercialization. Yet, enough progress is being made that it's safe to say it won't be long before Air Force pilots and commercial travelers will be flying in planes powered, in part or entirely, by synthetic or biofuels.
"We're looking at five-year time horizons, not 20-year time horizons," says Continental Airlines CEO Larry Kellner. "This isn't going to happen in 2010, but it needs to happen before 2020."
The International Air Transport Association, the trade group for airlines around the world, has a goal of replacing a quarter of airlines' oil-based fuel consumption with bio or synthetic alternatives by 2025 and a third of it by 2030.
Earlier this month, Continental took a Boeing 737 up for the USA's first test flight of a jet burning a mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuels. The test featured a 50/50 mix of Jet A and a biofuel in one engine. It was the fourth such test in the world in the last 12 months. It was the first using a plane with just two engines, and the first in which the alternative fuel was partially derived from algae. On Jan. 30, Japan Airlines will send up a jet using fuel that includes camelina, a weed sometimes called "false flax."
In touting their test flights, Kellner and other airline executives emphasize they're doing their part to address climate change by reducing the carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulates discharged from their jet engines.
Burning biofuel made from plants and even synthetic fuel made from liquefying coal and gas can cut a jet's carbon emissions. Although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, biofuels leave in the atmosphere only what the plants they're made from had absorbed. Synthetics also leave smaller carbon footprints than pure Jet A fuel. They also emit less nitrous oxide and particulate pollutants.