Honeywell Record Flight Brings Biofuel To Paris

 - June 29, 2011, 4:10 AM

Honeywell’s corporate Gulfstream G450 made bizav history when it landed at Le Bourget in time for the Paris Air Show after the first transatlantic flight using biofuel, a trip that resulted in net equivalent savings for the seven-hour flight of roughly 5.5 metric tons of CO2.

For the record-setting, nonstop flight from Morristown, N.J., to Paris, the fuel system was set up so that the number-one engine burned a 50-50 blend of “Honeywell Green Jet Fuel” and standard jet-A fuel while the number-two engine consumed only jet-A.

The Gulfstream was not the only “greener” aircraft at the show. A Boeing 747-8i using Honeywell’s biofuel blend in all four engines arrived at Paris after a nonstop flight from Seattle.

The transatlantic G450 flight accomplished two goals, according to James Rekoske, v-p and general manager of renewable energy and chemicals for Honeywell UOP, the division responsible for the two-and-a-half-year biofuel development program. First, it demonstrated the willingness of the business aviation industry to participate in the search for more environmentally friendly fuel sources, and, second, it signaled the importance of moving ahead toward the expected FAA approval of the 50/50 Green Jet Fuel blend in the middle of next month. The fuel received ASTM (American Society of Testing Materials) approval last month.

‘Feedstock-Flexible’ Fuel

The fuel is produced for UOP under license by a Houston refinery. It was developed under a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and is based on hydro-processing technology commonly used in today’s refineries to produce transportation fuels.

The process works by adding hydrogen to remove the oxygen from the natural plant oils. It is further refined to produce a bio-synthetic kerosene, which is then blended with standard jet fuel for use in flight.

Biofuel production typically involves a half-dozen sources, from algae to the jatropha plant common in Brazil. UOP used the camelina plant, a hardy, inedible species with high oil content, to create Green Jet Fuel, but according to Rekoske the technology is feedstock-flexible, meaning it can work with any natural oil. Camelina is indigenous to both North America and Europe and provides up to 150 gallons of oil per acre.

While FAA approval of the biofuel is expected this summer, opening the way for commercial use, “It will be four or five years before it will be available on a commercial scale at parity with jet fuel,” said Rekoske. Even then, the use of a pure, un-blended biofuel is unlikely in the foreseeable future. It may be 30 years before 50-50 blend is in common use across the aviation industry worldwide.

As for sustainable biofuel blends becoming the main aviation fuel of the future, Honeywell sees it as unlikely. “The larger issues of economics and sustainability will be the dominant forces surrounding the overall future of biofuels and their penetration into the aviation market,” according to Phoenix, Ariz.-based Honeywell Aerospace. “We believe there is no single magic bullet.”

There are other hurdles as well. The cost of feedstock accounts for approximately 85 to 90 percent of the cost of producing any transportation biofuel. The actual conversion makes up the remaining 10 to 15 percent. The cost of conversion of biofuel is competitive with petroleum-based technology, so the cost of the feedstocks is the determining factor. Today, the cost of the resources remains higher than the cost of crude oil, so there is till technological development needed to drive down the cost of harvesting, gathering and processing.

“As production increases and more fuel is available, we believe that Green Jet Fuel will be cost competitive,” said Rekoske. In the long term, he expects the price of biofuels to run about 10 to 15 cents more per gallon than jet-A, assuming a global price for petroleum crude of about $100 a gallon.

There appears to be little doubt that sustainable biofuels are better for the environment, according to a Honeywell paper on the subject. “The primary benefit of using sustainable biofuels in a commercial jetliner is their ability to reduce greenhouse gases throughout their entire lifecycle. Because plants take in CO2 as they grow, they partially offset the CO2 emitted from burning in the engine.

Not only do sustainable biofuels reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they also emit less particulate matter than petroleum-based jet-A and less than one part per million of sulfur.

Honeywell says it does not plan to go into the biofuel business, but will license the process and allow others to continue further development and distribution.