NASA has performed the first real world test of biofuels jet engine emissions versus jet engines powered by traditional fossil fuels.  (Source: NASA / Tom Tschida)

NASA engineers position a data collection device (the pole-like structure) behind an engine to measure emissions.  (Source: NASA / Tom Tschida)
Jet: Beef -- it's what's for dinner?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has given jets their first taste of animal flesh [press release], and apparently they like it.

Traditionally jets run on high-octane oil byproducts.  Oil is an "omnivorous" diet of sorts, in so much as it is composed of a hydrocarbon stew of decomposed plants and animals, though its primary contributors are prehistoric plants and bacteria. 

In March and April, researchers at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California test biofuel made of chicken and beef tallow (waste fat) in the engine of a DC-8 airplane.  NASA hopes that the study makes people realize that biofuels don't have to come from plant sources necessarily -- they can also come from flesh.

Writes the agency's press release:

"Renewable" means that the fuel source isn't some form of fossil fuel. The source could be algae, a plant such as jatropha, or even rendered animal fat.

To test the new animal-based biofuel, the researchers ran one engine burning Jet Propellant 8, or JP-8, fuel, which is very similar to the industry standard Jet-A fuel used in commercial aircraft.  They ran a second engine on a 50-50 blend of JP-8 and Hydrotreated Renewable Jet Fuel, or HRJ -- the animal-based biofuel.  And a third engine ran on pure HRJ.

The test was dubbed the Alternative Aviation Fuels Experiment, or AAFEX.

The key goal was to measure the amount of emissions put off by a jet running on biofuel versus one on fossil fuel -- something that had never been done before.

What they found was that the biofuel-powered engine produced much lower sulfate, organic aerosol, and hazardous emissions.  It also produced 90 percent less black carbon emissions at idle and 60 percent less at a takeoff level of thrust.  Emissions of nitrogen oxides, commonly known as NOx, were also much lower. NOx is a key component of smog and can directly trigger asthma attacks and respiratory problems in humans.

Ruben Del Rosario, a NASA manager of the Subsonic Fixed Wing Project at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, states, "The test results seem to support the idea that biofuels for jet engines are indeed cleaner-burning, and release fewer pollutants into the air. That benefits us all."

The testing was quite open with 17 government agencies, universities, and industry players participating in the test and data analysis.  The tests were funded by the NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.

The tests are somewhat of a sequel to a series of tests in 2009 in which engineers and researchers evaluated the performance of engines running on "synthetic fuels", like liquefied coal and natural gas.  Researchers in that test also found that emissions were significantly reduced over traditional fossil fuels.

The U.S. Air Force recently approved its first aircraft (the USAF Globemaster III) for running on a 50-50 blend of biofuel and JP-8.  Outside of the government several airlines, including Richard Branson's Virgin Airlines, are evaluating biofuels for commercial use.

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