Air Transport World

Fueling the future.(aviation shifts to alternative fuels)

OVER THE PAST YEAR, COMMERCIAL aviation suddenly has become serious about alternative fuels. Once pie-in-the-sky popular science, the subject now is manifestly mainstream. From January 2004 through July 2006, jet fuel prices skyrocketed $1.16 per gal., according to the Air Transport Assn., and fuel has leapfrogged labor at most airlines as the largest operating expense. But "this is not just about price," says ATA Chief Economist John Heimlich, "it's about supply integrity. We want to make sure we have fuel around at any price, [not just] a good price."


That is why the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative came about. Born of a Boeing workshop in May 2006, ATA, the Aerospace Industries Assn., Airports Council International and FAA are collaborating with the Depts. of Defense and Energy to speed the transition to alternative fuels--those not derived from conventional crude oil. Finally, says CAAFI Executive Director Richard L. Altman, "We have a unified aviation sector in terms of the way we look at things."

And the way it looks right now, synthetic fuels, with considerable caveats, are the answer. Bereft of reliable supplies of crude during World War II, Germany resorted to something called the Fischer-Tropsch process. Hydrocarbons, in Germany's case coal, were converted through gasification to liquid fuel. Apartheid South Africa adopted FT and refined the process. Today South African firm Sasol produces a blend of coal-derived FT kerosene and Jet A.

Fuel up at Johannesburg International and you're going to get a Sasol blend, says Ted Biddle, Pratt & Whitney's fuels technology manager. Carriers have been using a progressively higher blend (it is now in the low-30% range) of synthetics out of JNB for the past seven years. …

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