Paris 2011: Honeywell Record Flight Brings Biofuel to the Paris Air Show

 - June 19, 2011, 10:20 PM
A Gulfstream G450 recently became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic using biofuels.

Honeywell made history here in Paris on Saturday morning, landing its Gulfstream G450 jet at Le Bourget after the first transatlantic flight using biofuel. The trip’s green credentials can be measured in the 5.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) saved in the course of the seven-hour flight from the New York-area Morristown Airport. In fact, the aircraft crossed the Pond only partly powered by biofuel. The G450’s fuel system was set so that number-one (left) engine burned a 50/50 blend of “Honeywell Green Jet Fuel” and standard jet-A fuel, while the other engine consumed pure jet-A. Adding to the “greening” of the 2011 Paris Air Show is the expected arrival today of a Boeing 747-8F also using Honeywell’s biofuel blend, but burning it in all four engines on a nonstop flight from Seattle to Paris. Of course, neither of these two can trump the solar-powered Solar Impulse aircraft also debuting here in Le Bourget–although this isn’t even close to being ready for an intercontinental hop, having taken 16 hours to arrive here from Brussels. According to James Rekoske, v-p and general manager of renewable energy and chemicals for Honeywell UOP, which has led the two-and-a-half-year biofuel development program, the flight accomplished two goals. First, it demonstrates the willingness of the aviation industry to participate in the search for more environmentally friendly fuel sources, and second, it advances approval by the U.S. FAA of the 50/50 Green Jet Fuel blend, which Honeywell expects to receive in mid-July. American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) approval was granted early this month. The fuel is produced for UOP under license by a Houston, Texas 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. A half-dozen sources–ranging from algae to the jatropha plant common Brazil–are typically employed in producing biofuels. 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 American and Europe and provides up to 150 gallons of oil per acre. “It will be four or five years before Green Jet Fuel will be available on a commercial scale at parity with jet fuel,” said Rekoske. And even then, the use of a pure, unblended 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 predominate forces surrounding the overall future of biofuels and their penetration into the aviation market,” according to Phoenix, Arizona-based Honeywell Aerospace. “We believe there is no single magic bullet.” There are other hurdles as well. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of the cost of producing any transportation biofuel is determined by the cost of the feedstock. The actual conversion makes up the remaining 10 to 15 percent.  The cost of conversion of biofuel is competitive with petroleum-based technology, so that 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 still 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. Not only do sustainable biofuels reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, when compared with petroleum-based Jet-A, they also emit less particulate matter and less than one part per million of sulfur. Despite its work in the initial development of its Green Jet Fuel, 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.