An idea ahead of its time, an 80s Boeing concept image of the 7J7
An idea ahead of its time, an 80s Boeing concept image of the 7J7

Seen from afar yesterday morning’s Boeing hosted Aero Environment Summit in Sydney placed far more emphasis on the near term use of non-fossil carbon releasing fuels than the first such event in 2008.

This reporter intended to be there, but had an in-flight diversion, to stay in metaphor.

So with the benefit of the pictures or presentations but not many of the words, it seems that in a political environment where air transport is under immediate pressure to reduce its carbon emissions the strategic response is to emphasise some significant shorter term breakthroughs in fuel derived from plants or biomass.

The longer term solution, algal grown octanes, is being pursued harder than ever, but Boeing is now confident that viable and environmentally sustainable biofuels can, in the interim, become a reality by 2015.

In any of the ETS proposals that are being taken seriously in Europe and the US, the use of such fossil carbon reducing fuels rewards the airlines in terms of compliance, as well as their developers.

How well based is that confidence? As argued by Billy Glover, the MD for Environmental Strategy in Boeing Commercial Airplanes, the case seems pretty convincing. Various test flights have demonstrated that plant and even part algal derived fuels can be burned with the same efficiency in existing engines and safely carried and distributed in their tanks and fuel transfers systems in the same wide range of operating conditions required of jet grade kerosene.

What are called ‘drop in’ fuels, that can be used or blended in place of kerosene without any special modifications or procedures are already a reality. They are due to be appropriately endorsed or certified by the major aviation agencies this year.

They can be in viable, read ‘affordable’, use by 2015.

Carbon emissions by activity
Carbon emissions by activity

Glover also presented this graphic (below) which clarifies the distinctions between fossil released carbon and natural carbon cycles, differences which are often ignored in the populist debate by those who argue that social engineering has better answers to carbon curbing than invention or innovation in alternative energy technologies.

How carbon neutral works, simplified.
How carbon neutral works, simplified.

No doubt driven by political and social realities, the industry imposed conditions for biofuels production requires it to have a lower carbon footprint than fuel from petroleum sources, and not compete with food crops for water or arable land or pose bio-security risks.

A research scientist at the CSIRO division for Sustainable Systems, Andrew Braid, put the biomass potential of Australia (below) at 36% of current power demand or 26% of petrol and diesel use.

CSIRO AU biomass

This isn’t a complete solution. Nor is it 100% realisable. But it is well in excess of the minimal, some would argue pathetic, 2020 carbon reduction goals under the government’s current give-the-coal-industry-anything-it-wants policy.

Clearly on the CSIRO projections air travel in Australia could make significant carbon savings in the medium term, and have a real prospect of pacing if not exceeding the consequences of typical aviation growth in a mature economy. Or at least act as a bridging measure toward the more drastic reductions required of long term improvements in engine and fuel technology.

RR 2018

Rolls-Royce also put up this teaser (above ) of its projected ‘open rotor’ engine, which could deliver 30% fuel burn reductions by 2018, a figure guaranteed to fascinate any airline even without being linked to reducing the release of fossil-sourced carbon.

The open rotor concept, which is also being pursued by its arch rival GE, is a reincarnation of the ‘unducted fan’ proposals of the ‘80s. That engine concept, which Boeing proposed using in its 7J7 (as shown at the top of this article) as early as 1992 failed for a number of reasons.

It was incredibly noisy, it required reduced cruise altitudes compared to conventional turbo-fans which had implications for air space crowding, and if one of them blew apart, as engines sometimes do, it would cut off the tail of the jet, or at the very least, rip up the horizontal stabiliser, either of which would result in certain disaster.

The 7J7, had it proceeded and performed as promised, was to be a 737 replacement and an A320 ‘killer’. It would have most likely adopted the then unclaimed 777 numbering, which would in turn have likely been designated the 787 family, there would have been no NG series 737 family, and 787 now in its test and certification phase, would have no doubt been designated the 797.

In our dreams of course. The technology wasn’t ready. How ironic is it to contemplate the ‘open rotor’ design possibly emerging reborn from the past as the engine for the all new airliners which 10 or more years from now, will become the replacements for the current Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families?

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