Boeing's historic green diesel 787 liftoff. Just don't ask what it came from

While there are many off colour jokes about airline catering and road kill, Boeing’s historic green diesel flight in its ecoDemonstrator 787 this week used a fuel that could have been refined completely from waste animal fats.

As well as vegetable oils and waste cooking oils.

But what Boeing has done is make a valuable contribution to the pursuit of a new green fuel economic cycle in which aircraft, and presumably sea and land transport, could ultimately be fully fuelled on recycled but potentially energy rich wastes that fast food outlets, various manufacturing processes, and even abattoirs discard at a cost rather than sell as a cost offset.

Boeing’s statement on this flight, also includes a link to more detailed technical information.  This is also important, because frivolous or shallow reports about eco-flights  (like the intro to this post) glide over much deeper and vital matters.

The underlying issue in the industry wide search for successful, viable, alternative liquid fuels is the need to reduce or eliminate the release of fossil bound carbon into the environment. Nature isn’t handling excess fossil carbon release nearly as well as it accommodates the shorter term recycling of the carbon locked up in seasonal biomass from agriculture for example.

Nature uses photosynthesis to convert solar energy into plant matter which takes carbon from the air and sea and land, value adds it in terms of energy for food and fuel and then puts it back where it came from. Fossil sourced carbon overwhelms the shorter term but high volume carbon exchange cycles. Devising new and sustainable ways of replacing coal and oil sourced energy is for those unmoved by the climate change arguments no excuse for not being moved by the business and technology opportunities that the search for alternatives offers.

As Boeing is at pains to show, green diesel isn’t the same as biomass derived fuel blends using, say, jatropha nuts, or mallee plantations, or types of seaweed.  All of which can offer exceptional promise in the right locations and circumstances.  Part of the cost offset of alternative sources of jet grade refined kerosene comes from in situ production. From smaller scale refining operations based on or near airports, that currently cost much more than fossil sourced fuels,  but do not involve the inefficences of long distance transport from oilfields to refineries and then on to customers.

Among the many things Boeing is on about is efficient transmission of energy by making the fuel from local feed stock as close to an airport as possible. It’s the liquid fuel equivalent of avoiding the distribution losses that occur in electricity grids where the power generated is diminished by the distance it has to travel by cable.

The current availability of cheaper jet fuel may delay the introduction of biofuels and green diesels, but it will not stop them.

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