Onera to lead European consortium into study of medium-term deployment of alternative aviation fuels
Synthetic fuel emissions and performance testing at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, CA (photo: NASA Dryden/Tom Tschida)
Mon 16 Mar 2009 – French aerospace research organization Onera is to lead a 19-strong consortium in a study into the medium-term deployment of alternative jet fuels. The strategic feasibility and impact study is designed to provide political authorities with the information needed to foster and anticipate the emergence of alternative solutions that should enable the aviation industry to ensure the reduction of its dependence on oil-based products and its environmental impact. Meanwhile, in the US, NASA is conducting ground engine tests measuring the performance and emissions from synthetic jet fuels.
Called the Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuel and Energy in Aviation (SWAFEA), the Onera study aims to provide a clearer view of the feasibility of different alternative fuel options that will also help determine research paths to prepare future European programmes. According to Onera, it will also provide a solid foundation for establishing international partnerships, including in the United States.
The 26-month, European Commission-funded study will synthesize current knowledge of alternative fuels and issue recommendations and a road map for their medium-term deployment, taking a multidisciplinary approach to integrate a range of technical, organizational, economic, social, environmental and geopolitical issues.
Onera aims to communicate its findings through a collaborative web portal and an international conference.
Other members of the research and industry consortium include Bauhaus Luftfahrt, German Aerospace Center (DLR), University of Sheffield, Airbus, Air France, EADS-IW, Embraer, Snecma, Rolls-Royce, IATA and Shell.
Onera is France’s leading aerospace research facility and conducts and directs research for both government and industry, having played a leading role in the development of many European aerospace programmes.
Meanwhile, NASA and 11 other research groups are testing emissions from synthetic jet fuels derived from coal and natural gas using the Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process.
The technology to produce these fuels has been around for decades but the high cost of building new plants to produce them has prevented development. The United States does not have any F-T facilities although synthetic jet fuel is produced elsewhere, notably in South Africa. Some companies have tested the emissions of these fuels but NASA expects to be the first to put the results into the public domain.
On a life-cycle basis and without carbon sequestration, such fuels far exceed conventional oil-based jet fuels in terms of CO2 emissions and are therefore unattractive at the moment to the commercial airline industry. However, the US Air Force, which is urgently looking to replace its dependence on foreign oil with home-grown sources, has already successfully tested them in-flight. It is also considered that synthetic fuels are cleaner burning in that they create fewer particulates and other harmful emissions than standard jet fuel, and so improve local air quality around airports.
The tests are being carried out at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California using its DC-8 science laboratory aircraft. The plane remains on the ground for the tests, which are using one fuel made from natural gas and one from coal. Researchers are testing 100% synthetic fuels and 50-50 blends of synthetics and regular jet fuel. Almost all previous testing has considered only blends, says NASA. The research is looking primarily at engine performance and aircraft emissions.
The tests use sampling probes placed downstream from the plane’s right inboard engine and researchers examine the plume chemistry and particle evolution to compare it to that of standard jet fuel.
“We’re starting to look at just what comes out of the tailpipe of a commercial aircraft that is burning alternative fuels,” says Bruce Anderson, a scientist with NASA’s Langley Research Center, who serves as Project Scientist for the Alternative Aviation Fuel Experiment (AAFEX).
“We’re still very much in the early research stage,” comments AAFEX Project Manager Dan Bulzan of NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “But we know in the future these fuels are going to become important to aviation. Petroleum is dwindling and you’re going to need to make fuel out of coal, natural gas and biomass.”
The AAFEX tests are funded and managed by NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program, which is part of the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. The participating research groups include three other government agencies, five companies and three universities.
Since the publication of this article, Philippe Novelli, the Coordinator of SWAFEA, confirms that the study will cover types of alternative fuels other than biofuels, including coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid. A test plan will be defined in order to fill the information gap on the chosen fuels. The tests, performed by the different partners, will cover aspects from physico-chemical properties to combustion tests. High pressure combustion tests are planned at DLR and Onera facilities.