Future of Flight exhibit shows how algae may bloom into biofuel

  • Fri Apr 24th, 2009 11:12pm
  • News

By Bill Sheets Herald Writer

MUKILTEO — A leader in the green revolution could come from an unexpected source: the airline industry.

The Boeing Co. has spent more than three years working with other groups to study making jet fuel from algae and other plants. Boeing’s new exhibit at the Future of Flight Museum at Paine Field demonstrates how quickly algae can grow and become a source of fuel.

“Can we do it? The answer is yes,” said Terrance Scott, a specialist in environmental strategy for Boeing. “It’s not that far off.”

The aviation industry is in a better position to spark extensive use of biofuels than the auto industry, according to Boeing. There are only about 20,000 commercial aircraft in the world and only several hundred fueling stations, making for a smaller and less complex network.

The company has always been motivated to cut jet fuel costs, Scott said, and the recent volatility in the market only added to the incentive, he said.

Algae grows quickly, has a high oil content and takes less space than corn and other food crops used for fuels.

An area the size of Maryland could grow enough algae to fuel all commercial jet flights in the world, according to Boeing.

Very little algae is currently being grown commercially for fuel, but that’s expected to change soon, said John Williams, who handles publicity for the Seattle-based Algal Biomass Organization, a trade group of which Boeing is a member.

Most is being grown in labs, financed by government grants and private companies.

Within a year there could be several commercial projects, Williams said. Algae can be grown in many different ways, either in enclosed settings or open ponds, he said. It grows quickly — the Boeing exhibit at the Future of Flight has algae reproducing in several separate small tanks, with narratives and a short video about prospects for use of the fuel.

A Seattle company, Targeted Growth, is studying which types of algae will be the best for biofuel production, he said. There are more than 30,000 types of algae, Scott said.

Other plants can be used as well and are actually farther along in testing, Scott said.

Camelina, related to mustard and canola, has seeds with a high oil content and is being grown in the Plains states. Jatropha is a weedy tropical shrub that is ­being grown in warm climates. Halophytes are a class of saltwater grasses.

None of these compete with food crops — they can grow in areas not suitable for other farming or in rotation with food crops when fields otherwise would lie fallow.

These plants could be regular sources for jet fuel within three to five years, Scott estimates. Algae could be a common component in eight to 10 years, he said.

“We’re trying to create a portfolio of fuels,” Scott said.

Boeing isn’t looking to get into the fuel-growing business, he said. Rather, it’s trying to work with environmental organizations, airlines, engine builders, fuel suppliers and scientists to move the process along, Scott said.

Four test flights using biofuels in commercial airliners have been conducted worldwide in the past 14 months, with Boeing helping to arrange three of them, said Tim Rahmes, who managed the biofuel flight test program for Boeing.

All were successful, he said.

“They went outstanding, actually,” Rahmes said.

The most recent of the flights took place Jan. 30 in Tokyo when Japan Airlines jet took off from Tokyo and returned.

Biojet, as the fuel is called, is not biodiesel, Scott said. The process uses hydrogen to remove oxygen from the oil — the petroleum-based kerosene used in conventional jet fuel does not have oxygen — and to break down the oil’s molecules so its freeze point is much lower.

“There’s a whole series of things you check for,” Scott said.

The exhibit at the Future of Flight, 8415 Paine Field Blvd., is expected to be on display for a couple of months.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.