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US air force, Boeing press on with alternative jet fuel tests

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Boeing, manufacturer of much of the world airliner fleet, is to test the feasibility of using biofuels derived from non-standard feedstocks in its aircraft. Meanwhile, the US air force effort to develop domestically-supplied fuels continues.

Flight International reports that Boeing's environmental strategy chief, Bill Glover, believes that usable aviation biofuels could be produced from diverse sources around the world.

Algae was specifically mentioned, which may offer an explanation for Shell's recent decision to look again at green-scum seawater fuel farming.

Apparently, Glover can foresee a future economic model where many different biofuel makers using separate methods and feedstocks contribute to the world supply, rather than the present petroleum model fed by a few monolithic global producers.

Speaking to Flight, he likened the coming shift to the distribution of computing power outward from mainframes into PCs.

Meanwhile, on Monday a US air force C-17 heavy transport aircraft flew across America from Washington to New Jersey powered by a synthetic fuel blend produced by the Fischer-Tropsch process. The C-17 was merely the latest USAF plane to be cleared for synthetic juice; the B-52 bomber was the first, during the summer. The service plans to check out its whole fleet over the next few years.

US air force secretary Michael Wynne is keen to free the US military from dependence on fuels largely sourced from suspect overseas regimes: a desire in which he is not alone.

At present, though, the Fischer-Tropsch synthetics being used are derived from fossil sources - coal or natural gas - which are easily obtained in the US. They aren't biofuels, but at least you don't have to buy them from Saudi Arabia.

However, the Pentagon is also seeking technology which could produce jet fuel from "crops produced by either agriculture or aquaculture (including but not limited to plants, algae, fungi, and bacteria) ..."

This seems to chime with Glover's Boeing vision of many different, probably non-food biofuel sources, all producing interchangeable fuel to a common standard. According to Flight, the aerospace behemoth plans biofuel-powered test flights next year, using 747 jumbo jets lent by Virgin and Air New Zealand (with General Electric and Rolls-Royce engines respectively).

Initiatives such as this probably won't cut carbon emissions immediately. Fischer-Tropsch juice is just liquefied fossil fuel, and biofuel production methods of today involve emissions and energy use which rob them of carbon-neutral status. However, these plans could well see less of the developed world's money flowing into Saudi coffers.

In time, fuel made from non-food sources like algae using new processes might very well cut into carbon emissions significantly, too. And this would avoid driving up food prices or requiring unfeasibly large amounts of cropland.

That said, one reason more normal alternate fuels such as corn ethanol have gained some traction is the huge political clout wielded by the US farm lobby rather than any more high-minded factors. Still, corporations like Boeing, Virgin and Shell - not to mention government arms like the US airforce - also have a lot of muscle. They could push this type of plan just as hard if they really wanted to.

First, however, the technology needs to be proved feasible. Once that's done, the commitment of the various groups will - or won't - become clear.

The Flight reports on the C-17 flight and the Boeing plans are here and here, respectively. A Boeing document on alternative commercial aircraft fuels can be read here (pdf). ®

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