In Canada, Air Canada has revealed it is participating in the Civil Aviation Alternate Fuel Contrail and Emissions Research project, a research project led by the National Research Council of Canada to test the environmental benefits of biofuel use on contrails.
A reduction in the thickness and coverage of contrails produced by the jet engines of aircraft could reduce aviation’s impact on the environment, an important beneficial effect of sustainable biofuel usage in aviation.
The contrail backstory
Contrails are produced by hot aircraft engine exhaust mixing with the cold air that is typical at cruise altitudes several miles above Earth’s surface, and are composed primarily of water in the form of ice crystals.
The emissions impact?
It has to do with particular aspect of aviation, that is the nature of the emissions and the altitude they are released at. Aircraft emissions can count for anything between 1.2 and 4.7 times their actual weight. The most recent studies we’ve seen focus in on a 1.9 figure.
And that means a double carbon bonanza for biofuels, where carbon is counted.
Impact? If fully accounted for, you could see a biofuel producer looking at making diesel or jet with the same technology — but having a potential double carbon credit. That helps under, say, Low Carbon Fuel Standards, where the carbon credit is directly related back to the emission reduction.
Do biofuels make a difference?
Using biofuels to help power jet engines reduces particle emissions in their exhaust by as much as 50 to 70 per cent, a recent NASA study concluded.
Researchers are most interested in persistent contrails because they create long-lasting, and sometimes extensive, clouds that would not normally form in the atmosphere, and are believed to be a factor in influencing Earth’s environment.
Why important, since we’ve heard those “greenhouse gas reductions of 50 per cent or greater” figures many times, relating back to sustainable aviation fuels? In this case, it sounds suspiciously like powers that are obtained by X-Men after radiation-induced mutation – but accordingly, because of “contrail-induced cirrus clouds” and “the contribution of black carbon, organic and sulfate aerosols that may act as cloud condensation nuclei and ice nuclei”, aviation-related contributions to what is known as radiative forcing may increase to 3–4 times the year 2000 levels.
The research backstory
During flight tests in 2013 and 2014 near NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre in Edwards, California, data was collected on the effects of alternative fuels on engine performance, emissions and aircraft-generated contrails at altitudes flown by commercial airliners.
The study sampled the exhaust of engines onboard a NASA DC‐8 aircraft laboratory as they burned conventional Jet A fuel and a 50:50 (by volume) blend of Jet A fuel and a biofuel derived from Camelina oil, on flights as high as 40,000 feet. The test series were part of the Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions Study, or ACCESS.
This project involves six stakeholder organisations, with primary funding from the Green Aviation Research and Development Network (GARDN), a non-profit organization funded by the Business-Led Network of Centres of Excellence of the Government of Canada and the Canadian aerospace industry. The project has further financial support from the NRC and the enabling support of Air Canada ground and flight operations.
In addition to Air Canada, other CAAFCER partners include (alphabetical order) Boeing, National Research Council Canada (NRC), SkyNRG, University of Alberta, and Waterfall.
The project details
This project will use advanced sensing equipment mounted on a research aircraft operated by the NRC to measure the impact of biofuel blends on contrail formation by aircraft on five biofuel flights operated by Air Canada between Montreal and Toronto in the coming days weather permitting. During these flights the National Research Council of Canada will trail the Air Canada aircraft with a modified T-33 research jet to sample and test the contrail biofuel emissions. The sustainable biofuel is produced by AltAir Fuels from used cooking oil and supplied by SkyNRG.
Reaction from the stakeholders
“We are pleased to support Canada’s research on the additional benefits of aviation biofuel. This project is an important step in furthering the industry’s understanding of how biofuel reduces aviation’s carbon footprint and overall environmental impact,” said Teresa Ehman, director, Environmental Affairs at Air Canada. “Air Canada recognises its environmental responsibilities and the importance of understanding and integrating environmental considerations into our business decisions.”
“The National Research Council of Canada is proud to collaborate with our Canadian partners on this important research that will further reveal the viability of biofuels. By contributing our unique T-33 research aircraft specialising in contrail data collection and our expertise in emissions analysis, we hope to provide key information toward biofuel inclusion in all future flights,” said Jerzy Komorowski, General Manager of NRC’s Aerospace portfolio.
“We significantly improve airplane fuel efficiency through constant technology and operational improvements,” said Sheila Remes, vice president of strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “But additional efforts are required to achieve aviation’s ambitious carbon-reduction targets. Sustainable aviation fuels have the single greatest potential to reach those goals. Boeing is committed to supporting projects like this around the world to advance aviation’s knowledge and growing use of biofuel.”