Alternative fuel research programmes

Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology

ISSN: 0002-2667

Article publication date: 4 July 2008



(2008), "Alternative fuel research programmes", Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology, Vol. 80 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Alternative fuel research programmes

Article Type: Features From: Aircraft Engineering and Aerospace Technology: An International Journal, Volume 80, Issue 4

The Airbus A380 recently launched the company’s alternative fuel research programme by flying with a synthetic liquid fuel processed from gas (gas to liquids – GTL) in a 3-h flight between Filton, UK and Toulouse, France.

The A380, claimed to be today’s most fuel efficient airliner, is powered by Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines, while Shell International Petroleum is providing the Shell GTL Jet Fuel. The Airbus tests are running in parallel to the agreement signed in November 2007 with Qatar Airways, Qatar Petroleum, Qatar Fuels, Qatar Science & Technology Park, Rolls Royce and Shell International Petroleum Company to research the potential benefits of synthetic jet fuel processed from gas. The findings of the tests will benefit the consortium’s research.

Under Airbus’ overall alternatives fuels research programme, this is the first step of a long-term Airbus testing phase to evaluate viable and sustainable alternative fuels for the future. GTL could be available at certain locations to make it a practical and viable drop-in alternative fuel for commercial aviation in the short term. GTL has attractive characteristics for local air quality, as well as some benefits in terms of aircraft fuel burn relative to existing jet fuel. For instance, it is virtually free of sulphur. Synthetic fuel can be made from a range of hydrocarbon source material including natural gas or organic plant matter made by a process called Fischer-Tropsch.

Testing GTL today will support future second generation bio-fuels, but which are not presently available in sufficient commercial quantities. Airbus will study viable second generation bio-fuels when they become available.

Sjoerd Post, Vice President Shell Aviation, said “After more than 30 years of development and a decade of operations, we are now building, together with Qatar Petroleum, the world scale Pearl GTL plant in Qatar. In our drive for cleaner fuels, GTL technology can help reduce local emissions and encourage sustainable mobility.”

“Fuel and energy are key challenges aviation is facing and for which technology and international research collaboration open up new horizons. Our alternative fuels roadmap requires innovation, diversity of ideas and options that need to be explored”, said Airbus President and CEO Tom Enders. “This takes bold cross industry and cross border collaboration and that’s what we are showing today with our groundbreaking first test flight with alternative fuels. It is part and parcel of Airbus’ commitment to providing leadership as an eco-efficient enterprise.”

Virgin Atlantic recently announced that it also conducted a test flight of a 747 powered by a mix of 20 per cent biofuel and 80 per cent conventional jet fuel. The flight, carried no passengers, and was one of the first biofuel powered commercial jet flight, but what makes this flight even more unique is airline founder Richard Branson’s approach to biofuels.

While traditional biofuels, made from soybean or palm oil, take valuable land area away from food production, Branson has publicly rejected biofuels derived from such crops.

What this means is that the eventual source of Virgin’s biofuel will most likely be certain types of algae, which can be cultivated with only water, sunlight and carbon dioxide, making the biofuel derived from this unusual crop even more of a sustainable option.

It is also reported that Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan demonstrator engine has successfully operated using an alternative fuel blend during Phase I ground testing in West Palm Beach, Fla. Pratt & Whitney and engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in a partnership under the NASA Fundamental Aeronautics program, completed the test using a synthetic fuel blend as part of a program comparing potential emissions benefits for future aircraft applications. Pratt & Whitney is a division of United Technologies Corp.

“The Geared Turbofan engine is setting new standards for environmental performance and jet propulsion efficiency,” said Bob Saia, Vice President, Next Generation Product Family, Pratt & Whitney. “The successful demonstration of alternative fuels on our Geared Turbofan engine validates the flexibility of this engine’s design to take advantage of multiple sources of fuel and leverage the environmental and economic benefits available today.”

Pratt & Whitney is aggressively researching and testing alternative fuels for the aviation industry. In addition to the Geared Turbofan demonstrator engine, the company has partnered with the US Air Force to test and certify alternative fuels for the TF33-powered B-52 aircraft and F117-powered C-17 transport. The C-17 recently completed its first transcontinental flight operating entirely on a blended synthetic fuel. As part of Pratt & Whitney’s overall alternative fuel research, the company will conduct additional ground and flight tests across a range of products. Current plans for testing this year include commercial, military and business jet engines.

Pratt & Whitney actively participates in several international organisations working together to bring alternative fuels into field use. These organisations include the American Society of Testing and Materials, the Co-ordinating Research Council, and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

The Geared Turbofan demonstrator engine is part of Pratt & Whitney’s overall technology readiness program to power the next generation of commercial aircraft. The company is actively testing key components of the Geared Turbofan engine on 15 test rigs world-wide. The Geared Turbofan engine targets double-digit reductions in fuel consumption, engine noise, environmental emissions and maintenance costs.

In a Geared Turbofan engine, a state-of-the-art gear system allows the engine’s fan to operate independent of the low-pressure compressor and turbine, resulting in greater fuel efficiency and a slower fan speed for less noise. The Geared Turbofan engine builds on more than 20 years of technology development with improvements in every major module.

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