The aviation and shipping industries contribute significantly to global CO2 emissions each year, but a growing portfolio of sustainable technological solutions are helping the sectors reduce impacts and remain competitive. NASA has given its stamp approval to the use of biofuels in the aviation industry in a recent report, in which the body claims that using biofuels to help power jet engines reduces particle emissions in their exhaust by as much as 50 to 70 percent.
The findings are the result of a cooperative international research program led by NASA and agencies from Germany and Canada, and are detailed in a study published in the journal Nature. Data was collected during flight tests in 2013 and 2014 near NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. on the effects of alternative fuels on engine performance, emissions and aircraft-generated contrails at altitudes flown by commercial airlines. The test series were part of the Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions Study (ACCESS).
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. Researchers are most interested in persistent contrails because they create long-lasting and sometimes extensive clouds that would not normally form in the atmosphere and are believed to be a factor in influencing Earth’s environment.
The tests involved flying NASA’s DC-8 as high as 40,000 feet while its four engines burned a 50-50 blend of aviation fuel and a renewable alternative fuel of hydro processed esters and fatty acids produced from camelina plant oil. A trio of research aircraft took turns flying behind the DC-8 at distances ranging from 300 feet to more than 20 miles to take measurements on emissions and study contrail formation as the different fuels were burned.
The trailing aircraft included NASA’s HU-25C Guardian jet based at Langley, a Flacon 20-E5 jet owned by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and a CT-133 jet provided by the National Research Council of Canada. The report and its findings are just the beginning — NASA intends to continue these studies to further understand and demonstrate the potential of replacing current fuels with biofuels.