Jet fuel alternative on standby
Airlines say synthetics would be just the ticket
PHOENIX - With the price of oil holding above $110 a barrel, everything from wood chips to chicken fat is being scrutinized as an alternative to traditional fuel. But when it comes to airplanes, finding the right mix poses a special challenge.
"When you're in an airplane, you don't want your fuel to start solidifying," said Robert Dunn, a Department of Agriculture chemical engineer who is studying biodiesel jet fuel.
The airline industry is aggressively pushing for homegrown alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel, while leaning on customers with a variety of new travel charges to help control a projected $61 billion industrywide fuel expense this year. A number of alternatives to standard jet fuel have been studied for years, though aircraft manufacturers say the challenge is to find ideas that will work now.
Jet engines can be retrofitted to run on hydrogen, for example. But hydrogen does not pack the same punch as traditional jet fuel - kerosene - and would require airlines to buy planes designed with massive tanks. That is a tough choice for cash-strapped carriers, said Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
The best bet right now for nonconventional fuel comes from South Africa, experts said. The country has powered its airline industry for a decade using a coal-based jet fuel blend developed by petrochemicals group Sasol. It's technically a "synthetic" fuel, which means it can be used without altering engines or other aircraft equipment.
A number of US companies are developing a variety of similar synthetics. Airline experts say three companies in particular could provide as much as three million gallons a day of synthetic fuel by 2012: American Clean Coal Fuels of Portland, Ore., Baard Energy in Vancouver, Wash., and Rentech Inc. of Los Angeles.
Though significant supplies will not be ready for several years, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative - a coalition that includes the Federal Aviation Administration, airline, manufacturing, and airport associations - wants to set standards by year-end for a 50-percent synthetic jet fuel. CAAFI wants standards for a totally synthetic fuel ready in two years.