Photomicrograph of green algae. The airline industry is testing fuel made from this substance to save energy costs and reduce emissions.
When the first American commercial flight using algae biofuel took off a couple years ago, the results were very promising. The fuel had the same energy output and a lower freezing point.
Of course the flight wasn’t completely relying on the jatropha-derived bio-fuel; more like a 50-50 mix with petroleum…….in one engine…..for two hours…..yaaay….but still….
Bio-engineering algae so that it produces the same energy output as petroleum-based fuel without being so expensive is a stop-gap issue, and is being addressed right now. If there was more funding, it would have been solved before Lost had ended. Airline companies stand to benefit the most from this resource, as its light weight alone could make substantial cuts in its travel budgets.
So why don’t they cough up the cash?
According to Jennifer Holmgren, a chemist for UOP of Honeywell, algae fuel is apparently missing a key ingredient:
“… jet fuel from petroleum contains so-called aromatics—hydrocarbon rings—that interact with the seals in current engines, helping swell them shut. "We don't make aromatics through the vegetable oil route," she says. "If we wanted to fly on 100 percent [biofuels], there are issues around O-rings and things like that."- Jennifer Holmgren to David Biello, Scientific American, Dec. 30, 2008.
So the engine sealing design isn’t structurally compatible with the- and I believe I’m using the terminology here- “little green plant stuff what makes the energy go boom”, right?
Now, there are tons of other issues surrounding bio-fuels in general right now. Shell recently ditched their division because it proved too costly to mass-produce. However, when it comes to manufacturing, I see this as a golden opportunity. O-rings are already being improved through the use of nanotechnology. With a mondo investment in R & D, there’s no reason why the standard airline engine can’t be modified so that it’s less dependent on fuel to assist in sealing.
If that happens, not only would airline companies have a cheap source of fuel to power their jets, the manufacturing industry would have a new engine to build and refit planes with immediately (with the amount of money airlines could save on this fuel, they wouldn’t want to waste time). Presto. New stuff to make, new jobs needed to make them!
Sure those are tons of steps to take. But the ethanol industry in Brazil has been taking those steps for almost the whole decade now. They had to spend capital and make a public/private coordination to convert their engines to handle E85, and they’re booming right now. A similar effort could be done here with algae biofuel instead.
Contrary to what people like to say these days, I don’t think we should be looking for “the next big thing” to jumpstart our country’s economic identity. I see more added improvements and innovations to things that already exist and are, in some cases, pretty little.
Like an O-ring.
Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company, Inc.