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Initiative to study alternative fuels for commercial aviation

In the face of rising fuel prices, supply instability, and challenges to make aircraft emissions more environmentally friendly, an initiative was launched last month in Atlanta to examine alternative fuels for commercial aviation. The initiative will study such fuels as methanol, ethanol, and hydrogen; and alternative sources for traditional aviation fuel, including coal-to-liquid, gas-to-liquid, and biomass-to-liquid processes.

Participants gathered at Georgia Tech on October 23 for an alternative aviation fuels workshop and to create roadmaps for the newly named Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative. CAAFI sponsors include three trade associations: Airports Council International-North America, the Aerospace Industries Association representing U.S Manufacturers, the Air Transport Association, representing U.S airlines; and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Environment and Energy.

Four process areas delineated

For the purpose of the workshop, CAAFI organized participants into four process areas: research and development, environmental, business/economics/policy, and certification/qualification. Each area had a specific mission and set of goals. The workshop process sought to identify the state of alternative fuel developments, to identify gaps and hurdles, and to identify the steps required in the research process. Joint ownership by government and industry sponsors was a key goal: each team included representatives from government and all parts of the commercial aviation supply chain — from raw material suppliers (oil, coal, and biofuels) to end users.

Nathan Brown, a presidential management fellow at the FAA and manager for PARTNER’s Alternative Fuels Project, told meeting attendees that the civil aviation’s growing interest in alternative fuels is motivated by industry economic challenges, energy availability and security concerns, and environmental impact issues. He said that in the fourth quarter of 2005, fuel cost per seat-mile ($.0316) overtook that of labor ($.0309). Transportation has a greater reliance on oil than power, industrial, and residential/commercial users; imports are rising while U.S. production is decreasing; and, while the extent of impact is uncertain, there is interest in limiting or reducing any effect of aviation on the environment.

CAAFI coordination and communications manager Richard Altman, who is business development manager for Pratt & Whitney’s Advanced Engine Programs, said the workshop was an opportunity to help commercial aviation supply chain and government interests understand DOD, DOE, and private alternative fuel efforts.

“We established how to best collectively employ stakeholder efforts to benefit both industry and the public,” Altman said. “We gathered the input of more than 80 attending evaluators and fuels strategy implementers from industry, government, academia. We established areas of concentration and activities within those areas in the form of roadmaps and priorities. We have a lot to digest.”

Broad stakeholder representation

Air carrier interests represented at the workshop included the Air Transport Association; the International Air Transport Association; Air Canada; Alaska, American, Delta, and Northwest airlines; and UPS. Fuel interests included Exxon, Shell, Virgin Fuels, Peabody Coal, South African energy company SASOL, Diversified Energy Services, and biofuel developer Imperium.
Universities included Georgia Tech and MIT. The departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, US Air Force, NASA and the FAA were also represented.

Altman said that a key to developing the initiative’s next steps is “to engage PARTNER in a joint effort with CAAFI sponsors and stakeholders. Success of CAAFI / PARTNER engagement will be measured by our joint ability to develop data defining potential paths to achieving energy security for commercial aviation in the most environmentally responsible way.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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