Purdue to test biofuel in experimental flight Friday

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A Purdue University jet is about to make history, not because of where it’s flying but how it’s flying.

On Friday morning, Purdue will use biofuel to power its Embrarer Phenom 100 jet on a trip to the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.

“I believe this is probably the first flight of its kind with biofuels with a small jet airplane of this size,” said David Stanley, Co-Director of the Purdue AirTIES Research Center.

For the past few years, the Purdue researchers have been helping the Air Force test a new 50/50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel made, not from corn, but from a small plant called camelina.

“We’re using feedstocks that are not competitive with food or feed,” said Rich Simmons, Executive Director of Research for the AirTIES Center. “We’re looking at commercializing those from a host of different biomass sources.”

“We expect that in the next five to 10 years, we’ll see this fuel used even in airline operations,” Stanley said.

Though the fuel isn’t commercialized yet, after successful testing, researchers determined that they were ready to put it to test in the air.

On Thursday, crews filled up one of the two jet engines with the biofuel blend. They filled the other engine with traditional jet fuel, and they will compare the performance of the two during the flight to Wisconsin on Friday.

“These fuels are anticipated to operate in a drop-in fashion, in other words they should perform essentially the same as the fuels they replace,” Stanley said. “We expect to see really no performance differences at all.”

But there is a big difference between the fuels when it comes to emissions. The research team says the biofuel significantly reduces the carbon footprint of a plane, a fact that’s even more important in the air than on the road.

“The studies that have been done indicate that carbon emissions in the stratosphere, at flight levels, are more destructive and  more of a problem in the atmosphere than those same emissions at ground level,” Stanley said. “We should have an interest in solving this problem because it definitely has an impact on global warming.”

So far, the fuel is still too expensive for widespread use. It costs five to 10 times as much as traditional jet fuel, but the research team says successful test flights will help lead down a path to mass production and lower costs.

“The hope here is that more research will be steered toward the development of commercializing these fuels,” Simmons said.

Though he hopes to see it in use across the aviation industry in five to 10 years, Stanley says Purdue will likely turn to the biofuel sooner than that in order to “green” its fleet of jets.

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