In the Future, Airplanes Will Run on Pond Scum

It's bubbly and green and kills fish and now it makes airplanes fly! - image via
It's bubbly and green and kills fish and now it makes airplanes fly!

The logic of this is impeccable: The price of oil -- and airplane fuel -- has gone through the proverbial roof (although at the rate it's going, in a couple of years, flying will become so expensive, nothing will get off the ground anymore). So why not replace it with something cheap and plentiful that has no practical value anyplace else? Like, say, pond scum?

Amazingly, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have actually figured out a way to make this happen.

For the past few years, scientists have been working on converting algae into biofuel. The oils have met stringent jet fuel regulations. And they work: Boeing has successfully tested the algae oil on several different aircraft, including the twin-engine 737-800.

"Every flight exceeded our exceptions," Michael Hurd, director of environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a press release. Boeing won't even have to make any adjustments to the existing engines.

Boeing officials are confident that the biofuel will be approved for commercial use by the end of this year, and that in three to five years production will ramp up enough that it won't even be a novelty anymore. Currently the algal fuel sells for $4 to $5 a gallon, about the same as regular oil, but when production kicks into high gear, scientists predict the price will drop to $2.

There's even a possibility algae will provide fuel for cars, too. "We now know that these fuels meet all the standards for gasoline, jet fuel and diesel," said Richard Sayre, a biofuel researcher at the Danforth Plant Science Center. Sayre also serves as chief technology officer of Phycal, an algae-fuel focused biotech company.

But pond scum won't eliminate the airlines' dependence on oil altogether. Initially, algae oil will comprise only about half the mixture used for jet fuel. The other half will be conventional petroleum.

And there's another buzzkill: A study at MIT recently showed that fossil fuels might actually be greener than the new biofuels.

"What we found was that technologies that look very promising could also result in high emissions, if done improperly," said James Hileman, principal research engineer in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "All those processes require energy and that ends up in the release of carbon dioxide."

Well, we're sure somebody at Danforth can figure it out. We're hoping anyway. We'd love to be able to afford to fly again sometime in the near future.

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