Aerospace industry continues biodiesel-related testing

By Ryan C. Christiansen | March 09, 2009
Biodiesel and biodiesel feedstocks continue to garner interest from the aerospace industry. Carlsbad, Calif.-based Flometrics Inc. recently tested B100 in a RocketDyne LR-101 rocket engine, and Japan Airlines completed a test flight using fuel that contained camelina, jatropha and algae oils. Meanwhile, Grand Forks, N.D.-based Sunrise Renewables Inc. has obtained a license for a patented thermal-cracking technology from the University of North Dakota, which can convert vegetable oils to aviation fuel, other fuels, chemicals and polymers.

In the rocket engine test, Flometrics found the performance of biodiesel to be within 4 percent of RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel, according to Chief Executive Officer Steve Harrington.

He said the most important aspect of rocket fuel is fuel economy. "With rockets, most of the weight you're lifting when you're trying to get into orbit is the fuel, and the biodiesel was about 4 percent lower than the RP-1 that the U.S. Air Force uses, so it's pretty close," he said. Further testing may involve changing the oxygen-biodiesel mixture ratio during the burn. "Biodiesel has oxygen in it, and normal kerosene doesn't," he said. "We might be able to get slightly better performance [from the biodiesel]."

Even if the specific impulse of biodiesel is slightly less than RP-1, the renewable fuel might prove to be a viable rocket fuel for the aerospace industry because it's denser. Harrington said knowing which feedstocks produce the densest biodiesel would help to determine the most efficient feedstock for producing biodiesel for rocket fuel.

Flowmetrics' initial rocket engine test burn lasted approximately six seconds and consumed approximately three gallons of biodiesel, "just long enough to see what the performance was, and then we shut it down," Harrington said. The company planned to test-launch the biodiesel-powered rocket in the Mojave Desert in California on March 7. He said three gallons of biodiesel would carry the rocket-which is 20 feet tall, one foot in diameter and 150 pounds-to 23,000 feet. The engine was expected to run out of fuel at 10,000 feet.

Meanwhile, the airline industry continues to test biofuels. During a demonstration flight Jan. 30, Japan Airlines used a 50 percent mixture of camelina, jatropha and algae oils with 50 percent kerosene-based Jet-A fuel in a Boeing 747-300 aircraft. The renewable blend powered one of the plane's four Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines during a 90-minute roundtrip flight from the Haneda Airport in Tokyo. During the flight, tests were conducted on the engine's performance during normal and nonstandard flight operations, which included quick accelerations and decelerations, as well as engine shutdown and restart. Data from the flight will be analyzed by Japan Airlines, Boeing Co. and Pratt & Whitney.

More specifically, the biofuel portion of the mixture was 84 percent camelina, 16 percent jatropha and less than 1 percent algae oil. The camelina oil was provided by Sustainable Oils Inc., a joint venture between Seattle-based agricultural bioscience company Targeted Growth Inc. and Houston-based biofuel producer Green Earth Fuels LLC. The jatropha oil was supplied by India-based Terasol Energy, and the algae oil was provided by San Diego-based Sapphire Energy.

The biofuel was produced by Nikki-Universal Co. Ltd., a joint venture between Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP LLC and Japan-based JGC Corp., using a proprietary hydro-processing technology. Lab tests by Boeing, Co., UOP and several independent laboratories verified that the biofuel satisfied the industry's criteria for jet fuel performance.

In the realm of research and development, Sunrise Renewables' biofuel produced with its thermal-cracking technology has been tested by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to confirm that the fuel meets military specifications for JP-8 aviation fuel. The U.S. Air Force has requested 200,000 gallons of the fuel for flight testing, so the fuel can be fully certified for military use.

To meet this request, Sunrise Renewables is developing a pilot-scale facility at UND to produce 800,000 gallons of the fuel per year. Then the company plans to build an 8 MMgy demonstration-scale facility. It also plans to use the technology to produce a biofuel equivalent to Jet-A commercial aviation fuel, biodiesel, a cold-flow improvement additive for biodiesel and a product dubbed JB100, a jet turbine fuel that can achieve burn stability at -58 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sunrise Renewables spun out of the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education program, known as SUNRISE, which involves students and faculty from UND, North Dakota State University, Mayville State University and the North Dakota State College of Science. The SUNRISE program has also been working with biodiesel production equipment manufacturer Crown Iron Works Inc. in Roseville, Minn., to help with the detailed engineering of its process technology.
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