October 1, 2011
At dusk on June 18 in Morristown, NJ, N922H taxied from the ramp onto the active runway. The red and white Gulfstream G450 lined up at the departure end and, with a roar of its powerful engines, took off on a flight to Paris, France.
Sound like an everyday business flight across the Atlantic? Not this trip. Honeywell made history that day, when the company’s transatlantic business-aircraft flight became the first to be powered in part by biofuel.
“I didn’t have any concerns,” said Honeywell’s Chief Pilot Ron Weight. “Before the transatlantic flight, we completed a five-hour test flight. We conducted a number of performance checks. We shut the engine down in mid-flight and relit it. There were absolutely no problems.”
A Cinderella Story
If Weight was laconic about the flight in the way of many pioneer pilots who find their way into the record books, his low-key manner belied the aviation industry’s intense effort to develop an Earth-friendly fuel made from non-petroleum resources. Even though research has been underway for the better part of two decades, the story of Honeywell Green Jet Fuel is a Cinderella tale of brainpower and hard work.
“In 2006, we were approached by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to produce a jet fuel from fully renewable resources,” said Jim Rekoske, vice president and general manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals for Honeywell subsidiary UO P. As the project got underway, Rekoske said there were few hopes for a quick solution at Honeywell – or anywhere else in the aviation industry. But in December 2008, Honeywell presented the Pentagon with Honeywell Green Jet Fuel, completely derived from a renewable resource.
“I think it is surprising,” Rekoske admitted. “If you were able to wind the clock back to 2006 and ask people whether we could fly planes [powered with biofuel] in just two years – which is something we did – no one would have believed it.”
That’s in spite of some rather exacting standards, Rekoske said. Honeywell’s criteria for developing an aviation biofuel required that it be a “drop-in” propellant: It would have to power aircraft without any modifications to the engine or airframe. It also would have to be derived from sources that are not edible by man or livestock and not overtake valuable land or water resources.
“Honeywell has taken the position that, morally, the production of fuel from a food source is not the best use of a food source,” Rekoske said. “People need to eat before they need to fly, and that’s a critical statement we all need to keep in mind.”
During Honeywell’s June 18 transatlantic biofuel flight, the Gulfstream G450’s right-side Rolls-Royce engine was powered by a 50 percent blend of biofuel and Jet-A. The biofuel was refined from camelina, a non-edible plant that can be grown in rotation with food sources like wheat.
It has been shown that camelina actually helps rejuvenate soil depleted during crop production for human consumption. It also can be cultivated on land considered only marginally fertile for food crops. The feedstock used in the historic flight was grown and harvested by Sustainable Oils, a U.S.-based producer of technology derived from camelina.
Gulfstream’s Support of the Record Flight
Ron Weight’s trip across the Atlantic was Honeywell’s sixteenth biofuel test flight since 2008. It was a cooperative venture with Gulfstream, which, like the entire aviation community, has a vested interest in the outcome.
“Gulfstream is committed to achieving business aviation’s ambitious goals on emissions reductions. These include carbonneutral growth by 2020 and a reduction in total carbon emissions of 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2005,” said Pres Henne, senior vice president, programs, engineering and test at Gulfstream.
The effectiveness of biofuel in reducing an aircraft’s carbon footprint was obvious during the transatlantic flight, according to Weight. “Even using biofuel in a 50-50 blend in only one engine, we reduced net carbon emissions from the flight by 5.5 metric tons,” he said.
As an added bonus, the biofuel blend in the G450’s right engine proved to burn more efficiently than did the pure Jet-A flowing through the left engine.
“After almost seven hours in flight, we used about 140 pounds less fuel on the right side than on the left,” he said.
Further testing showed the right engine was unaffected by the blended fuel when compared to the left.
“We examined the engine with a borescope before and after the test flight, as well as before and after the Paris flight,” Weight explained. There were no undue signs of wear resulting from either flight.
The successful experiment came at a critical time, as the U.S. and European Union wrangle over implementation of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a plan to reduce carbon emissions in all forms.
“Even using biofuel in a 50-50 blend in only one engine, we reduced net carbon emissions from the flight by 5.5 metric tons.”
“We’ve had a lot of dialogue about ETS,” Weight said. “This [Honeywell Green Jet Fuel] is something that addresses that.” Biofuels are a healthier alternative to petroleum-based fuel, releasing far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. Although aviation only accounts for approximately 2 percent of the Earth’s man-made greenhouse gases, it is important that the industry do its share to reduce pollution.
A New Fuel Standard
On July 1, ASTM International, which sets test and measurement standards for products worldwide, announced that renewable fuels made from natural oils were approved under ASTM D7566-11, modifying the worldwide standard for jet fuel to include the use of up to 50 percent biofuel. The new standard gives fuel producers, distributors, storage facilities and aviation operators worldwide guidelines on thermal stability, distillation control and trace material amounts. Under the standard, the resulting blend of fuels cannot differ in either performance or operability from pure petroleum-based fuel, according to the ASTM.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt responded enthusiastically to ASTM’s issuance of the new standard. “This is a significant step toward a new era of greener and more energy-independent air travel,” he stated. “FAA, along with the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative, worked diligently to develop the fuel standard through thorough research and testing. This is a key milestone in helping us meet the Obama Administration’s environment and energy goals for the nation, and it is directly responsive to the recommendation of the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee to promote and display U.S. aviation as a first user of sustainable alternative fuels.”
Fueling the Future
Both Weight and Rekoske envision a future in which biofuels power more and more aircraft. So far, Honeywell has produced more than 700,000 gallons of Green Jet Fuel derived from camelina, jatropha and algae, and tallow.
“Our process allows fuel to be made from a variety of different feedstocks,” Rekoske pointed out. “Anything that is a natural fat or a natural plant oil can be converted into jet fuel.”
Honeywell Green Jet Fuel currently costs about twice the going rate for Jet-A, Rekoske said. But as more farmers grow feedstocks and more refineries are built to process them, he believes the price will eventually equal that of petroleum-based fuel. Rekoske predicted that by 2020 biofuel could account for up to 15 percent of the aviation fuel market.
Since biofuel and Jet-A are interchangeable, Weight said he believes business aviation flightcrews on transatlantic routes will soon be able to choose their propellant according to their destination.
“If both fuels are available and you’re going to the EU , you’ll be able to choose biofuel and reduce your ETS exposure,” he predicted.