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Boeing is banking on biofuel development

Putting sugar in a gas tank is never a good idea. Some people even try it to get back at someone. But for Boeing, putting sugar in the tank could cut airplane emissions by up to 80 percent. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Most think putting sugar in a gas tank is never a good idea. Some people even try it to get back at someone. But for Boeing, putting sugar in the tank could cut airplane emissions by up to 80 percent.

The international jet fuel standards organization has just approved the third type of biofuel that can be used safely on commercial flights. It’s called farnesane, and it’s made out of plant sugars. Boeing has been working with companies in Brazil, France and California to develop this fuel and get it to market.

Boeing’s Jessica Kowal said this new fuel is blended with traditional jet fuel at about 10-percent levels, and the engines don’t know the difference.

“Our industry, as a whole, wants to make sure that you can add biofuel to the jet fuel supply without making any changes to airplanes or engines or the fueling infrastructure,” she said.

Kowal said Boeing’s plan is to develop biofuels with plants or other material that are native to every region in the world, basically creating different blends for every corner of the globe. That way there will always be a reliable source close by. So China’s biofuel would be different from America’s or the Middle East’s or Europe’s.

“What you want to do is expand the number of sources you can use to make biofuel and expand the fuel types that have been approved and over the years, you’ll get more biofuel and that really helps our industry reduce its carbon emissions,” Kowal said.

Boeing just identified a plant that can be grown in the desert with sea water that is being considered in Dubai. It is looking at reusing cooking oil in China for another blend.

“When biofuel is produced sustainably, it can reduce carbon emissions by 50-to-80 percent,” she said. “That is a significant factor, and that will really help the aviation industry meet its very aggressive goals for the environment going forward.”

Right now, Kowal said biofuel is more expensive than regular jet fuel so a lot of airlines are waiting for the prices to drop. That will only happen once there is a better supply.

Biofuel was approved for commercial airline use in 2011. So far, around 1,500 passenger flights have been flown using it. Kowal said flights in Brazil should be using this new sugar-based biofuel soon. That is where farnesane is being produced.

And by the way, the whole sugar in the gas tank thing is a myth.

It might eventually clog your filters or injectors, but it will most likely just settle in the bottom of your gas tank. Sugar does not dissolve in gasoline. It won’t caramelize in the engine to turn into a gooey mess.

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