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Air travel is getting greener. While the dependency by the aviation sector on fossil fuels is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, concerns about rising fuel costs, energy supply, and aviation emissions have called for a fresh look at alternative fuels and aircraft design.
Blended Winglet Technology
One way that the aviation industry is becoming more eco-savvy is by changes in aircraft design.
Seattle-based Aviation Partners Boeing has introduced a new blended winglet technology that reportedly will save the world's airlines and private jet operators two billion gallons of jet fuel, or more than $4 billion, resulting in a global reduction of 21.5 million tons of CO2 emissions.
Winglets are curved wing extensions that improve the flow of air over the tips of an airplane's wings, reducing turbulence, which in turn reduces drag. The greater efficiency means an aircraft can fly longer distances on the same amount of fuel, carry heavier payloads, and run its engines more efficiently.
The technology is available for new production and existing aircraft. According to the company, each airplane equipped with the winglets will save up to 500,000 gallons of fuel annually, depending upon the miles flown. American Airlines, Delta, Alaska Airlines, Southwest, Continental, Hawaiian Holdings, and Air New Zealand reportedly have added blended winglets to their respective fleets.
American plans to install winglets on its entire 58 fleet of 767-300ERs, which could result in a total savings of up to 29 million gallons of fuel per year and a reduction of up to 277,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions annually.
Delta plans to have 30 of its 767-300ER jets flying with winglets this year. And by the end of 2010, Alaska Airlines will be flying 74 Next-Generation 737s with winglets, saving 130,000 gallons of fuel annually for each 737-800. Southwest Airlines is retrofitting its entire fleet of 143 Boeing 737-700s with winglets, and Continental Airlines is leasing 113 sets of the winglets.
On another front, an aviation milestone took place in late March as the U.S. Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II jet took to the air for the first-ever flight powered by a biomass-derived jet fuel blend made from the non-food plant camelina. The aircraft flew nearly 90 minutes with a 50-50 blend of camelina-derived fuel and conventional JP-8 jet fuel. Sustainable Oils supplied the camelina oil, and Honeywell's UOP developed the green jet fuel as part of a Defense Energy Support Center award.
According to Michigan Tech University, the carbon emissions of camelina aviation fuel are about 80 percent less than petroleum jet fuel. Camelina is a resilient plant that grows well in all areas where wheat thrives.
The U.S. Air Force will continue to wean itself off foreign oil in the coming years; it plans to have half of its fleet running on alternative fuels by 2016. The U.S. military also is testing dozens of other fuel feedstocks, including algae, fiber-based plants, fish oils, marine waste (such as shells), and wood chips. The goal is to find a proper mix of biofuels that will allow for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions during combustion without losing the lubrication qualities of traditional jet fuels.
Are biofuels the future for the aviation industry? According to some experts, biofuels may be the next sustainable frontier in the challenge to travel more eco-responsibly. Although currently in their infancy as an alternative jet fuel source, consumption share of biofuels in the aviation fuels market could reach 15 percent in 2020 and 30 percent in 2030.