Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Looking for Green in Blue Skies

A month before the Farnborough air show, an assortment of visionaries, inventors and oddballs, together with a sprinkling of aviation heavyweights, gathered at Le Bourget airfield, north of Paris, for the second edition of the Salon de l’Aviation Verte, or Green Air Show.

“There is no such thing as ‘green’ aviation,” said Olivier Jouis, head of environmental affairs at Eurocopter, one of the heavyweights there. “It’s a misnomer. It’s a polluting industry. We can only hope to make it less so.” Progress is being made, he said, to reduce pollution in mainstream commercial flight operations and manufacturing but it is slow and incremental.

Still, alongside the makers of solar-powered planes, flying robots and airships — and the Paris Art Boomerang Club — the 52 participants in the salon included the engine maker Snecma and European Aeronautic Defense & Space proof that the mainstream is getting involved.

Technological innovation is pushing the boundaries of conventional aviation in several different directions, not least toward renewable energy use. “Renewable energy can do impossible things,” Bertrand Piccard, the founder, president and sometimes pilot of Solar Impulse, said after that aircraft completed the world’s first solar-powered, overnight flight this month.

Despite that exciting technical feat, commercial applications are limited, warned Paul Steele, Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group , a Geneva-based industry lobby. “The Solar Impulse has the wing span of an A-330 but it’s only carrying one person. We would need a similar wing-span to carry 200 people. It’s a weight to wing-span problem,” Mr. Steele said.

Solar power, generated at altitude and stored while an airliner flies its route, can, however, supply auxiliary power for in-cabin systems like lighting and air-conditioning when the plane is on the ground. According to the action group, 85 percent of auxiliary power is used at the airport gate when the main engines are stopped. Using an alternative power source could cut airline power bills by $100,000 a year per gate, it says.

Even more fuel could be saved simply by rethinking inefficient airplane routing, both on the ground and in the air. Mr. Steel said his group is lobbying for quick implementation of the European “Single Sky” coordinated control program and the U.S. Next Generation air traffic management project, both designed, in different ways, to guide airliners more directly to their destinations.

Beside greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution is another big concern.

Airships, silent and self-supporting, are “an interesting concept” that could find a niche market in transporting non-perishable goods, Mr. Steele said, though for commercial air passengers “spending three days flying across the Atlantic is probably not what they want.”

For the mainstream passenger market a new generation of large airliner engines, reducing noise by 75 percent, will be in production by 2016, he said.

Helicopters, meanwhile, present particular noise problems, Mr. Jouis, of Eurocopter, noted. Their engines are loud and their rotors make a racket all on their own as each blade strikes the sound wake left by the preceding one.

Eurocopter is working on two noise reduction projects. “One is a passive redesign of the blade, which would cut the sound by 50 percent, while the second is an active control system that controls the pulse of the blades,” he said.

But the hot topic in green aviation at Le Bourget this year was biofuel — “probably the most exciting area that is developing quickly,” Mr. Steele said.

“Three years ago it was still a pipe dream that you could use biofuels for aviation,” he said, but in the past three years, technologies have been developed that can produce carbon-neutral, low-sulfur fuels from two plant sources, jatropha and camelina, and from micro algae, that can be burned by jets without modifying the engine or distribution system.

“We’re expecting final certification by the end of this year or by the beginning of 2011 for biofuels,” Mr. Steele said. “If you get the right fuel, you can reduce what’s called the carbon life-cycle footprint by 80 percent.”

One company planning to offer aviation biofuel is Solena, based in Washington, which in February announced a partnership with British Airways to develop Europe's first sustainable jet fuel plant, using waste biomass.

The company says that its technology can turn any type of agricultural, urban or industrial waste into high-quality jet fuel at a competitive price with no effect on the environment.

The process relies on molecular dissociation, using advanced plasma gasification technology and the Fischer-Tropsch catalytic reactions developed in Germany in the 1920s to produce synthetic oil, Solena’s founder and chief executive, Robert Do, said in an interview.
Inorganic slag residues left as a byproduct can be vitrified and used as construction material, he added.

Mr. Do skipped the green aviation salon but said he planned to present a joint project at Farnborough, with BA and the city of London. The project calls for Solena to transform urban waste from London, which would normally go to a landfill, into jet fuel, which he said B.A. had agreed to buy at a price pegged to the market price for jet fuel.

Jet fuel prices of $2.70 to $3.25 per gallon, or 71 cents to 86 cents per liter, would allows Solena’s fuel to be competitive and viable, he said. The average refinery price for jet fuel is now just above $2 a gallon, according to data cited by the International Air Transport Association’s Web site.

Describing the proposed London plant as the “first commercial-sized biotech fuel project in the world,” Mr. Do said that local government officials were assessing several locations in east London that might be suitable sites for the £205 million, or $315 million plant, which he said should process 500,000 tons of waste a year into 16 million gallons of jet fuel, while generating 20 megawatts of electricity as a byproduct. “The planning and permit phase” for the plant should be completed in about a year, with construction scheduled to start in the second half of 2011, he said.

In addition to the environmental benefits, the plant would add more than a thousand jobs to the economy during construction and create a further 200 long-term operating positions, he said.

Once in operation, he said, it would earn carbon credits that could be sold or traded on the European emissions market. These would be shared between Solena and B.A., with the airline earning credits for using a “carbon neutral” fuel and Solena earning them both for producing the fuel and for preventing greenhouse emissions by eliminating landfill.

Mr. Jouis, of Eurocopter, however, questioned the project’s feasibility. Fischer-Tropsch technology had never been applied on a significant scale to urban waste, he said.

In general, biofuels are not yet up to the standards needed for safety — at least not for helicopters — he added. “It’s one thing to put a 50/50 fuel in one engine of a quadri-motor airplane,” he said, referring to a mix of 50 percent standard fuel and 50 percent biofuel: “it’s another to put it in a single- or bi-motor aircraft.”

Mr. Jouis was also skeptical about any industrial process that was purported to be totally environmentally friendly. “There’s always some impact,” he said.

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/business/global/20iht-ravgreen.html
Related link : http://www.greenaviation.org/

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