Purdue University to builds alternative fuel test center

 - December 28, 2009, 10:58 AM

Purdue University has received a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Air Force to establish a new facility to test aircraft engines and develop alternative fuels. The National Test Facility for Fuels and Propulsion–which is expected to open late this year or early next–will be located at Purdue Airport in the school’s Niswonger Aviation Technology Building. According to the project leaders, the test center will provide fuel-sustainability and emissions data as well as information for economic assessments.

“The aerospace industry now has an unprecedented interest in developing green aircraft using biofuels,” said David Stanley, an associate professor of aeronautical engineering technology at Purdue and one of the new facility’s principal investigators. “Testing will be conducted while fuels are being researched for development. This means input will be provided during the development phase, not after the fuel has been developed, which helps to ensure the best results possible.”
The facility will draw together university faculty from many disciplines–including agriculture, en-gineering, science and technology–to fulfill the goals set forth by the Air Force, governmental agencies and industry, including the National Air Transportation Association, which has called for 10 percent biofuel usage by 2017.

Ensuring Production Sustainability

The Purdue program will take a ground-up approach to biofuel production, starting with the growing of feedstock from which alternative fuels will be developed for engine tests with those fuels. “Approximately 17 billion gallons of turbine fuel are burned annually in the United States, and clearly a portion of this could be saved by blending alternative fuels,” said Stanley. “The U.S. Air Force intends to be able to operate its fleet on blends of these fuels.”

Sustainability of the mass production of alternative fuels is one of the key concerns with which the nascent bio-jet fuel industry will be grappling. Culminating three years of discussion, Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL)– which coordinated an international initiative known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB)–in November released its Principles of Sustainability and selected Santa Barbara, Calif.-based alternative fuel supply chain integrator BioJet as the first pilot company for the worldwide implementation of them. The principles outline the key environmental and social policies that, according to the RSB, must be upheld to sustain the large-scale production of biofuels. The 12 principles address issues such as land and labor use and water management.

BioJet, which was formed about a year ago and intends to capture as much as 6 percent of the alternative jet fuel market eventually, plans to involve itself in the entire biofuel process from the growing of the feedstock, through the refining, all the way to distribution to the end user.

As the pilot test subject, the company will thoroughly review its intended processes to make sure that everything meets these principles up and down the line. “That’s why they are interested in us,” BioJet CEO Mitch Hawkins told AIN. “We touch everybody in the entire chain of a biofuel all the way from beginning to end rather than just one specific type of business.”

While biofuels have shown practical use in flight tests, they have yet to receive ASTM certification, and there is currently no large-scale commercial production mechanism in place. BioJet and other alternative fuel producers believe that approval could come soon. “The principles of sustainability are going to show up on everybody’s radar screen sometime this year whether people want them or not,” said Hawkins. “The European Union is looking to adopt these as regulatory; it has not yet, but it is going in that direction. I believe that [in some countries] everybody down the [biofuel] chain is going to have to have a certificate of sustainability,” a document Hawkins believes will eventually be endorsed by auditing organizations set up to monitor compliance with the sustainability principles. “It isn’t just best practices; it appears to be something that is going to be put into place in enough developed countries that it forces everybody to do it,” he added.

BioJet expects to work closely with EPFL over the coming months to determine the components of the test program. “The principles of sustainability have now been decided upon,” said Hawkins. “This pilot project is really a preliminary [task] in biofuel implementation.”