Turbine Technology: The Future of Biofuels

April 14, 2010
Necessity is the mother of invention

The pieces are in place: The high price of fuel, international focus on environmental impact and emissions, the search for a renewable resource, and a need for technology that will produce the quantities needed for the industry and not require a new system for distribution.

The needs of the marketplace are bringing the innovation focus to biofuels as the answer to alternative fuels.

Airlines, regulatory organizations, fuel companies, and investors are all working toward the same goal: certifying a product and finding a cost-effective process to supply and manufacture the product.

The aviation industry is demonstrating its desire for biojet fuel with the certification of biofuels on regular commercial flights expected in 2012, the Air Force’s target to use 50 percent domestic jet fuel by 2016, and the European Union’s mandate that transportation fuels consist of 10 percent biofuel by 2020, according to Great Plains Oil & Exploration — The Camelina Company.

Industry standards
With all the research and development going on, the industry also recognizes the need for fuel standardization. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) passed a synthetic fuel standard, D7566-09 Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons, which replaces ASTM D4054, Qualification and Approval of New Aviation Fuels and Fuel Additives.

ASTM is one of the largest international standards development systems in the world. According to Mark Rumizen, aviation specialist of the FAA and chair of the task group that developed the standard, “Concerns with the future cost and supply of conventionally derived aviation fuel and the imposition of carbon emissions limitations contributed to the development of ASTM D7566.” The issuance of the standard, he continues, “is the culmination of a focused, collaborative effort by the commercial aviation industry to move toward more environmentally friendly fuels, and to diversify the suppliers of aviation fuel.”

The new standard, which was developed with the support and involvement of engine and airframe manufacturers, can significantly reduce approval time and cost to certify a new fuel or new fuel additive from about 10 years and $10 million to just three years and $3 million, according to Pratt & Whitney. The protocol includes a meticulous process for assessing impact on engine safety, performance, and durability. It ensures that blends with up to 50 percent of Fischer-Tropsch synthetic paraffinic kerosenes (SPK) meet the standard specification requirements to ensure drop-in quality.

The taskforce that worked on the standard was made up of members of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), the U.S. Air Force and ASTM committee members from the industry. CAAFI is a consortium of aerospace firms, trade groups, and the FAA to advance the production and acceptance of alternative aviation fuels.

“There was a critical need to develop a standard practice for approval of new fuels and new fuel additives for use in commercial and military engines,” says Tedd Biddle, Pratt & Whitney’s fuels technology manager. “There was no official protocol in place that was accepted by Pratt & Whitney, GE, and Rolls-Royce that provided guidance, procedures, and requirements to our commercial and military customers.”

Biddle recently won the ASTM International Committee D02 Petroleum Products and Lubricants Award of Excellence for leading the industry group and serving as the primary author of the 60-page standard practice guideline.

Another effort to promote the benefits of biofuels comes from the Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) which recently published the Beginners Guide to Aviation Biofuels.

It outlines the benefits of moving to a cleaner source of fuel, technical criteria for a sustainable solution, and testing process by which a biofuel is evaluated. ATAG is a global organization that represents commercial aviation and air transport.

Industry partners
Here are just some of the companies involved in biofuel development. Great Plains Oil & Exploration – The Camelina Company (Cincinnati, OH) and Accelergy Corp. (Houston) have teamed up to create a fully synthetic jet fuel similar to standard petroleum fuel using camelina oil. With more than 12 years of camelina development, Great Plains produces and supplies commercial quantities of biofuel. Accelergy has a proprietary micro-catalytic technology to increase the efficiency of the coal-biomass-to-liquids process and reduce greenhouse emissions.

ExxonMobil has announced it will invest $600 million in algae-biofuel research, and it has teamed up with Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) to evaluate biofuel alternatives. The companies are looking at algae because it can be grown using land and water that are unsuitable for plant or food production, and it can be grown in a couple of days instead of a typical growing season. SGI is building a test facility in San Diego to study growing patterns and oil extraction techniques.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), an airline-led users group, was formed for the development and commercialization of second-generation biofuels. Members include Boeing, UOP (a Honeywell affiliate), and about a dozen airlines. The group is committed to renewable fuel sources that don’t compete with food or water resources and require minimum land, water, and energy to produce.

Last month the Defense Logistics Agency’s Defense Energy Support Center and Air Transport Association (ATA) signed an alliance for the development and deployment of alternative aviation fuels. The intent is to establish a forum to spur market growth of alternative fuels.

“The airline industry and DoD collectively require more than 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel per day,” says James C. May, president and CEO of ATA. “By combining our talents and experience, we are better positioned to explore cooperative market engagement for fuel, improve the financial prospects for alternative fuels infrastructure, accelerate fuel certification efforts, and refine our methodology for determining environmental impacts.”

Testing and research
Testing is being done by airlines, military, and others in the industry.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is partnering with Swift Enterprises, a biofuel developer. Engineers at the Eagle Flight Research Center, at its Daytona Beach, FL, campus, will perform testing to switch nearly half of its aircraft fleet to Swift fuel. The fuel, synthesized from sorghum, has passed the FAA’s detonation test and gets more mileage that current aviation fuel.

Air Force scientists are also looking for cleaner, more efficient ways to fuel the military’s aircraft. An A-10 Thunderbolt II flew in March solely on a blend of biomass-derived fuel and conventional JP-8 jet fuel. The biomass fuel was derived from camelina, a nonfood rotation crop similar to soybean and mustard.

“This is the first step of many we’re going to follow through,” states Betty Rodriguez, chief engineer for the Air Force alternative fuels certification office. “We’re going to continue expanding the envelope, basically testing engines and testing aircraft.”

“The way we look at it is to figure out what fuels make the most sense from an aviation industry perspective — which ones have the potential to make the most fuel the most affordably with the least environmental impact,” says Tim Edwards, a senior chemical engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s propulsion directorate.

“We’re at the cutting edge of alternative fuels,” Rodriguez says. “Everybody’s pulling together to make this possibility a reality, to create a family of fuels we can burn safely and won’t impact the performance of our aircraft.”