NASA Confirms Using Biofuel in Jet Engines Does Reduce Pollution

According to a new NASA research, switching traditional jet fuel with biofuel does indeed release fewer particle emissions. However, it this really news for anyone? You certainly could’ve guessed what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would find before the study took place. Biofuel in jet engines means good news to the environment, or at least, better news than their fossil fuel counterparts.

NASA pilots played an important role in the recent research, as they trailed extremely closely behind the aircrafts used for the experiments. If we’re to believe the results, NASA scientists may have just discovered how to cut plane-generated particle emissions by around 70 percent. This finding could considerably lower the aircrafts contribution to the climate change.

Jet Engine Emissions Cause Air Pollution…

People usually believe jet engines are bad for environment because they cause such immense levels of pollution. In reality, however, the negative effects are not limited to the emissions only. Jets also contribute to air pollution via the condensation trails. Let us explain what’s going on in simpler terms. Jet engines emit soot particles combined with water vapor. However, given the high altitudes, the water vapors turn into ice crystals. Do you know the white trails you see behind airplanes in the sky? They are the result of these ice crystal concentrations.

Due to the fact that the trail takes time to dissipate, it enables the formation of cirrus clouds in the atmosphere layers. Therefore, the fur-type clouds you see from an airplane are in fact a blanket of such cirrus clouds. These cloud patterns might look innocent, but they add up to the global warming effect. They increase the temperature at that altitude by 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit).

… But Biofuel Reduces Air Pollution

However, biofuels could lessen the formation of such contrails, thus reducing the levels of climate change. The U.S. space agency published their study in the weekly edition of the science journal Nature. To determine if biofuel causes any changes, a team of NASA scientists put a mix of traditional jet fuel and biofuel into a NASA DC-8 aircraft (a 50-50 ratio). Then, pilots flew chase planes behind the aircraft to measure the emissions.

Thanks to the instruments they were fitted with, these small planes were able to capture the jet emissions some 100 to 500 feet behind the NASA aircraft. The team performed their experiments at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Center, in California. To conclude the findings, the space agency used different fuels for the various trips. The test flights occurred in 2013 and 2014, allowing the science team to gather enough data on emission generation, engine performance, and aircraft contrails at commercial-plane altitudes.

Cirrus clouds / Source

It turns out using cleaner fuel has a significantly positive impact on the environment on its own. NASA’s data showed air travel releases almost 800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Moreover, the study found that reducing particle pollution also decreased the formation of contrails.

“Those soot particles serve as nuclei for water vapor in the very cold atmosphere to condense on and for the artificial-looking linear contrails that we see when we look out the window,” according to Dr. Richard Moore, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center and the author of the study. “You’ll then see those lines spread and form cirrus clouds that weren’t there before the plane flew through the airspace.”

Jet Contrails & Climate Change

Now we know the cirrus clouds caused by these contrails contribute to the warming effect. Additionally, scientists have also discovered the cloud’s influence on the overall warming effect is more meaningful than the all of CO2 emitted by airplanes since the beginning of powered flights. That’s a serious claim that NASA can back up with hard facts.

This is the first study of its kind. Prior attempts of figuring out the effects of jet fuel were conducted in controlled conditions. Scientists had used grounded jets which they had locked down. As they throttled up the engines, they tried to estimate the environmental damage caused by a jet engine. However, the current research studied the way particles interacted with the freezing air at cruising altitudes. By collecting data in the air (between 30,000 and 40,000 feet), the team was able to draw up much accurate estimates.

It was vital the chase planes only measured the pollution created by the contrails of the aircraft they were following. Therefore, the pilots were instructed to fly between 30 and 150 meters (98-492 feet) behind the tested aircraft. The results revealed using biofuel in jet engines cut the amount of particulate matter “50 percent by number and 70 percent by mass.”

According to NASA’s press statement, the jet-fuel blend used for the DC-8’s engines was a mixture of fatty acids composed from camelina plant oil and hydro-processed esters. But can this renewable alternative fuel revolutionize the impact of commercial flights?

Aircraft contrails at sunset

Aircraft contrails at sunset / Source

Future of Biofuels

The next logical step would be to use these promising results on a wider scale. If biofuels are so important for reducing climate change, why are not more aircrafts using it? Dr. Moore explained in a BBC interview that a number of infrastructural and engineering obstacles make this improvement currently impossible. For example, many jet engines cannot function safely if they don’t reach a certain quota of traditional jet fuel.

Biofuels could meet the need for a clean liquid fuel, but they are still controversial across the board. Before jetsetters can rejoice at the good news, scientists need to figure out how to work around these limitations. In the near future, hopefully, all those loving to travel by air will have fewer reasons to feel guilty. Meanwhile, other projects are underway to make biofuel more prevalent in commercial flights.

At the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, Alaska Airlines, Boeing, and Port of Seattle have started a collaboration towards making biofuel available for more flights. Meanwhile, NASA’s researchers hope to report soon with progress in the aspect of developing biofuel for various jets and aircrafts. Biofuel in jet engines has plenty of benefits, undoubtedly, but we are still far from using it being able to use it more predominantly.

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Rick Carlstrom

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