Car manufacturers are pouring money into a number of technologies to ensure their business remains viable when oil prices start to increase dramatically due to dwindling supplies or their customers no longer accept oil derivatives as fuel sources. We hear endless amounts of PR on the latest concept vehicles and the fleets of hybrids, fuel cells and now hydrogen powered internal combustion engines but we hear almost nothing about the aviation industry and how it is planning to replace oil based fuels.
Possibly the most comprehensive plan to reduce aviation emissions is being developed in the European Community with their Clean Sky framework. Interestingly, the goals for this programme are not to find a replacement for oil. Instead they are concentrating on efficiency improvements throughout the lifecycle of aircraft and corresponding emissions reductions by 2020. Nowhere on these pages does it mention finding a replacement for oil based fuels.
In the US there is some work being done on using Aviation Grade Ethanol (AGE 85) in the General Aviation sector. Unfortunately, little appears to be being done in the commercial jet sector. The one thing we have heard of is the US Air Force B-52 that is testing a Fischer-Tropsch synthetic fuel blend. This aircraft has done a number of test flights at Edwards Air Force Base in California and will be doing cold weather testing early this year.
The US Department of Defense is looking to expand its use of synthetic fuel for aviation within Air Force and Navy and are looking for suppliers. Whether this is for environmental and/or strategic reasons remains unclear. As does the viability of using synthetic fuel in commercial aviation.
This United Nations Environment Programme report highlights the difficulties associated with replacing kerosene as the preferred fuel in the aviation industry.
On balance, it appears that current types of aviation fuel will continue to be the preferred option for gas turbine powered aircraft. This situation could change if liquid hydrogen could be produced by an environmentally acceptable and economically competitive method or if the need to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation becomes overwhelming.
According to the UN report “aircraft are now consume about 2.5% of all fossil fuels burned; therefore, they are not major contributors to anthropogenic CO2 discharged into the atmosphere”. It seems we can expect little change in aviation’s reliance on oil in the coming years, possibly decades. It stands to reason that we can continue to expect the cost of aviation to rise in tandem with oil prices.
Update: 16 Jan 2007
Flight International have just published three interesting articles on this issue. Corn to run addresses the use of ethanol in aviation, Fuel for change
looks at clean alternatives for jets and Virgin invests in future fuels research
talks about Virgin Fuels investment in biofuel research and development.