GE Leads the Introduction of Biofuels into Aviation
GE Aviation is an industry leader in evaluating fuels from alternative sources for commercial and military engines in order to maximize economic benefits for customers, while minimizing the carbon footprint on the environment.
In early 2010, Mexican low-cost carrier Interjet plans to conduct a two-hour biofuels demonstration flight test with a CFM56-5B-powered Airbus A320. CFM will be part of an industry team, along with SAFRAN Group, EADS, and Honeywell's UOP, that will test fuel derived from Salicornia, a type of algae indigenous to Mexico that does not compete with potable water.
Although a timeline for complete introduction of alternative energy sources on commercial and military engine platforms is unclear, "it is possible in the near future that engine certification tests will be run with fuel produced with some percentage of renewable feedstock," said Mike Epstein, GE Aviation Alternative Fuels leader. "The goal is for alternative sources to be designated and handled as ordinary Jet-A."
In January 2009, Continental Airlines demonstrated the use of sustainable biofuel to power a commercial aircraft for the first time ever in North America. The demonstration flight -- conducted in partnership with Boeing, GE Aviation/CFM International, and Honeywell's UOP -- marked the first sustainable biofuel demonstration flight by a commercial carrier using a two-engine aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines.
GE, as a partner with Boeing and Virgin Atlantic, powered with a CF6 engine a Virgin Atlantic 747 from London to Amsterdam in February 2008 to demonstrate the use of a sustainable biofuel. It was the first flight ever flown on renewable fuel. The biofuel, produced by Imperium Renewables, derived from a blend of coconut and babassu oils. Neither of these feedstocks competes with food supplies or cause deforestation.
GE recently completed work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to convert algae into jet propulsion fuel 8, or JP-8, that could power Navy and Air Force aircraft. The completed study, which met all program objectives, focused on developing JP-8 that is indistinguishable from petroleum-based JP-8 but that it is 100% biofuel and not a blend with a petroleum-based fuel. It studied oils from diverse crops, including soy, camelina, canola, coconut oils, algae and cuphea, all of which do not compete with food crops and involve processes that are feedstock-flexible.
GE Aviation actively permits alternative fuels in its marine and industrial engine applications, which run on numerous types of fuel and combinations of fuels. For example, GE's LM2500 engines for cruise ships trialed and analyzed the use of biodiesel in late 2005, and have been running on this fuel since early 2006.
Testing on GE and CFM engines has shown no meaningful difference between conventional fossil-derived Jet-A and 50-50 blends of biofuel. "We do not see a requirement to modify our hardware or software to accommodate utilization of 50-50 blends of biofuel," said Epstein.
Alternative fuels face challenges before being introduced to the aviation industry. Biofuels, both food- and non-food based, are agricultural commodities subject to price fluctuations in the market. Fuels derived from biomass offer the best opportunity for significant CO2 reduction, though technical challenges exist including low energy density, marginal thermal oxidative stability (coking at high temperature), fuel freezing point temperature, and the lack of lubricity when modified for aviation use.
GE Aviation, an operating unit of General Electric Company (NYSE: GE), is a world-leading provider of commercial and military jet engines and components as well as integrated digital, electric power, and mechanical systems for aircraft. GE Aviation also has a global service network to support these offerings.