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Published on March 17th, 2017 | by Tina Casey


New Life For Energy Zombie: NASA Pens A Love Letter To Jet Biofuel

March 17th, 2017 by  

The biofuel industry has had its ups and downs, so the latest news from NASA should warm a few hearts. The US aerospace agency has just released the results of a new study demonstrating that biofuels used in jet engines shave a good 50 to 75% off particle emissions.

Those of you looking for some good news regarding biofuels and carbon emissions will have to look at some other study, but the results still indicate a very promising pathway for reducing the climate effects of air travel.

Camelina Makes A Comeback

The new jet engine study is the result of an international effort with the participation of Germany and Canada.

The tests involved taking NASA’s four-engine “workhorse” DC-8 on flights up to 40,000 feet using a one to one blend of biofuel and standard jet fuel.

The biofuel in question was derived from the camelina plant. If that name rings a bell run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

Camelina was an early fan favorite for next-generation biofuels biofuels that don’t depend on food crops for humans. It’s a scrawny, weedy looking oilseed plant also known as false flax:

camelina biofuel energy via USDA

Back in 2009 the US Navy began testing camelina biofuel in its Super Hornet, and the US Air Force followed up in 2011 with camelina-powered air demos featuring the legendary Thunderbirds team.

More recently, last year KLM Dutch Airlines launched a test run of 80 flights to compare camelina jet fuel to kerosene.

More Biofuel, Less Soot

The NASA study comes under the agency’s Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions Study program.

That program addresses concerns over the potential climate effects of contrails that linger in the atmosphere:

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.

That’s not quite what the contrail conspiracy theorists have in mind, but it’s still a big issue. Here’s the NASA take:

…contrails, and the cirrus clouds that evolve from them, have a larger impact on Earth’s atmosphere than all the aviation-related carbon dioxide emissions since the first powered flight by the Wright brothers.


So far the research indicates that particle emissions — aka soot — from jet engines are a “major driver” of contrail formation, so a significant reduction in soot from jet engines could become an important factor in efforts to control climate change.

Let’s Hear It For NASA

Gathering the data for the study was a whole story in itself, involving three teams of fliers trailing behind the DC-8 to measure emissions in actual flight conditions ranging a distance of 300 feet to 20 miles.

That’s where Germany and Canada come in. The three trailing jets were the German Aerospace Center’s research veteran Falcon 20-E5 and the National Research Council of Canada’s CT-133.

Here’s a snippet from the study abstract (published in the journal Nature) explaining the significance of the research effort:

Modelling studies of the present and future effects of aviation on climate require detailed information about the number of aerosol particles emitted per kilogram of fuel burned and the microphysical properties of those aerosols that are relevant for cloud formation2. However, previous observational data at cruise altitudes are sparse for engines burning conventional fuels2, 3, and no data have previously been reported for biofuel use in-flight.

So, good thing the folks at NASA wrapped up this important study in time for President Trump’s forthcoming budget cuts.

According to Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney, federal spending on anything to do with climate change is a “waste of your money.”

Mulvaney and his team could be in for a rough ride in that regard. Aside from pushback in Congress, they’ll have to duke it out with Trump’s powerful Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is known for supporting climate action as a matter of — you guessed it — national defense.

Aside from facing down Mulvaney and other Trump Administration officials (we’re talking about you, Scott Pruitt), Mattis may also have to stare down Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel (this guy), the climate skeptic and Muslim ban supporter who has become an influential voice in Trump’s ear.

Assuming that NASA jet emissions research survives the Trump budget, keep an eye on the agency’s end goal of using biofuel to power its stealthy supersonic X-plane passenger jet:

NASA jet with biofuel energy

The experimental aircraft is still on the drawing board, so stay tuned for that.

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Images: top (screenshot) via NASA, middle via USDA, bottom via NASA.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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