dc 8

Flying With Fuel From Plants: The Eco-friendly Way to Go

We eat them. We make medicines out of them. Now we’re learning how to use plants as airplane fuel that helps the environment.

Using biofuels to help power jet engines reduces particle emissions in their exhaust by as much as 50 to 70 percent, according to a new study that bodes well for airline economics and Earth’s atmosphere.

All of the aircraft, researchers and flight operations people who made ACCESS II happen. Credits: NASA/Tom Tschida

The findings are the result of a cooperative international research program led by NASA and involving agencies from Germany and Canada, and are detailed in a study published in the journal Nature.

The view from inside NASA’s HU-25C Guardian sampling aircraft from very close behind the DC-8. Credits: NASA/SSAI Edward Winstead

Our flight tests collected information about the effects of alternative fuels on engine performance, emissions and aircraft-generated contrails – essentially, human-made clouds - at altitudes flown by commercial airliners. 

The DC-8’s four engines burned either JP-8 jet fuel or a 50-50 blend of JP-8 and renewable alternative fuel of hydro processed esters and fatty acids produced from camelina plant oil. Credits: NASA/SSAI Edward Winstead

Contrails are produced by hot aircraft engine exhaust mixing with the cold air that is typical at cruise altitudes several miles above Earth’s surface, and are composed primarily of water in the form of ice crystals.

Matt Berry (left), a flight operations engineer at our Armstrong Flight Research Center, reviews the flight plan with Principal Investigator Bruce Anderson. Credits: NASA/Tom Tschida

Researchers are interested in contrails because they create clouds that would not normally form in the atmosphere, and are believed to influence Earth’s environment. 

The alternative fuels tested reduced those emissions. That’s important because contrails have a larger impact on Earth’s atmosphere than all the aviation-related carbon dioxide emissions since the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers.

This photo, taken May 14, 2014, is from the CT-133 aircraft of research partner National Research Council of Canada. It shows the NASA HU-25C Guardian aircraft flying 250 meters behind NASA’s DC-8 aircraft before it descends into the DC-8’s exhaust plumes to sample ice particles and engine emissions. Credit: National Research Council of Canada

Researchers plan on continuing these studies to understand the benefits of replacing current fuels in aircraft with biofuels. 

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