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Purdue University Will Test Alternative Fuels for Aircraft

WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana, December 3, 2009 (ENS) – Purdue University will operate a new federally funded facility to test aircraft engines and develop alternative fuels for aircraft in an effort to reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil.

The National Test Facility for Fuels and Propulsion is funded with a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Air Force and will be housed in the Niswonger Aviation Technology Building at the Purdue airport.

“The aerospace industry now has an unprecedented interest in developing green aircraft using biofuels,” said David Stanley, an associate professor of aeronautical engineering technology at Purdue and principal investigator of the facility.

Scheduled to open in late 2010 or early 2011, the facility will test aerospace hardware in engines and aircraft and provide data related to fuel sustainability and emissions goals and for economic assessments.

Aero L-29 military aircraft powered solely by 100 percent biodiesel >(Photo courtesy DOE)

The researchers will work with the Air Force, industry and government agencies to develop the fuels.

“Roughly 17 billion gallons of turbine fuel are burned annually in the United States, and clearly a portion of this could be saved by blending alternative fuels,” Stanley said. “The U.S. Air Force intends to be able to operate its fleet on blends of these fuels.”

“Testing will be conducted while fuels are being researched for development,” said Stanley. “This means input will be provided during the development phase, not after the fuel has been developed, which helps to ensure the best results possible.”

The work will tackle four major bottlenecks to aerospace progress:

  • access to hardware testing
  • development of control logic and systems permitting flex-fuel operation and improved efficiencies
  • sustainability of biofuels related to crop productivity, as well as the ability of biofuels and synthetic fuels to meet aerospace requirements
  • regulatory compliance

“This is a multidisciplinary research approach that begins with growing crops, developing fuels from those crops in the laboratory and then testing those fuels in engines,” said Denver Lopp, a professor of aviation technology and one of two co-principal investigators.

The other co-principal investigator is J. Mark Thom, a professor of aviation technology.

Work will focus on jet engines but will include some testing related to piston engines.

“The project involves faculty members in the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, Science and Technology to develop a well-rounded and capable research team for fuels research, with particular focus on aviation and aerospace,” Lopp said. “Purdue is strong in each of these areas, and having an airport also enhances these strengths.”

“The overall goal is to update and maintain a multifaceted national testing facility with dedicated administration to support development and testing of alternative energy sources for aerospace equipment,” said Lopp. “This facility will address all energy sources and will not be an advocate of any particular fuel.”

The world’s first commercial aircraft powered partly by biofuel took off on February 26, 2008. The Virgin Atlantic 747 flew from London to Amsterdam using a 20 percent biofuel mix of coconut and babassu oil in one of its four main fuel tanks.

In October 2007, a Czechoslovakian-made Aero L-29 military aircraft powered solely by 100 percent biodiesel was successfully flown over Reno, Nevada.

Campaigners have said that carbon savings from aircraft biofuels are not worth the trouble, and there is concern that biofuel crops could compete with food production, damaging the environment and displacing local indigenous populations whose forests are cleared to grow biofuel crops.

Jet biofuel blends have already been made from various feedstocks, including jatropha, camelina and algae. Other feedstocks under consideration include organic waste streams; waste forest residues such as tree bark, twigs and stumps; and corn stover, the non-edible component of corn plants.

Airbus has stated that 30 percent of jet fuel requirements could be met by biofuels by 2030, using only second-generation biofuels sourced from non-food competing feedstocks.

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