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Green Aviation Climbs to New Heights on Multiple Fronts

Bob Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel
Energy & Environment
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This turns out to be quite a week for green aviation. First, an incredible milestone in the historic journey of the Solar Impulse as the fuel-free aircraft successfully completed a five-day crossing of the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii, the longest solo manned flight in history. While the realization of commercial solar-powered flight is likely still decades away, this inspirational journey sets a high bar against which all other efforts must ultimately be measured.

Then, United Airlines, announced that it would invest $30 million in a program that would produce jet fuel from trash. Pleasanton, California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy specializes in producing both aviation and diesel fuel from ordinary household waste. The company has committed to produce as much as 180 million gallons of this fuel per year. Fulcrum’s process, according to spokesperson Karen Bunton, “has been thoroughly vetted by numerous third parties including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture” and has been found to meet “all of the aviation industry and military technical requirements and specifications.”

Fulcrum is preparing to begin construction on the Sierra BioFuels Plant near Reno, Nevada, that is expected to produce 10 million gallons of ethanol annually using household garbage. Bunton said the plant used a modular design that can be “easily replicated and scaled to build larger facilities that will produce between 30 and 60 million gallons of competitively-priced jet fuel or diesel per year.”

This is hardly United’s first venture into alternative fuels. In 2013, the airline signed an agreement with AltAir Fuels to purchase 15 million gallons of biofuel derived from camellia, a distant relative of canola. The fuel, which is produced in Southern California, is being used exclusively on flights taking off from LAX. Back in 2011, United flew a commercial leg between Houston and Chicago with a blend of 40 percent algal-based biofuel from Solazyme.

Also announced last week, Virgin Atlantic has cut its carbon intensity while increasing profitability, primarily by switching to more efficient aircraft, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The company’s level of carbon dioxide emissions per mile traveled was down 10 percent from 2007 levels, putting it on track to reach its ultimate goal of a 30 percent reduction by 2020.

At the same time, the company turned a profit for the first time in three years. Said Virgin’s CEO, Craig Kreeger: “Our latest sustainability figures show that profitability can be de-coupled from carbon, which is fantastic news for our airline and our industry.

"Last year we successfully delivered on our recovery plan, posting a profit for the year ending December 2014, and we are now looking to an even more sustainable future, in every sense of the word.” The company is also working with LanzaTech to incorporate alternative fuels produced from waste gases.

And if all that wasn’t enough, on July 10, the Airbus, all-electric E-Fan, will make a demonstration flight across the English Channel. This single-seat prototype is expected to pave the way for production models E-Fan 2.0 and E-Fan 4.0 and ultimately a short-range, regional airliner in the long term.

As the battle against climate change heats up, both airlines and aircraft manufacturers are stepping up their efforts to come up with greener alternatives. Air travel has become a deeply entrenched and highly valued aspect of modern life that many will be reluctant to forsake. In 2013, some 3 billion people took to the skies. At the same time, emissions from aircraft are significant contributors to climate change, estimated at 5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, not only because of the large amount of fuel consumed by each airplane and the large number of airplanes, but also because the emissions are deposited directly into the upper atmosphere.

That number could grow, based on the current trend, to as much as 15 percent of all GHGs. So, it’s good that these efforts are taking place. At the same time, it raises the question of whether enough is being done.

Image credit: Wiser Earth: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

 

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