Sunday December 10, 2017

Researchers have come up with a way to convert sugarcane into jet fuel

Those could be sugary contrails if new research into sugarcane jet fuel is adopted by the aviation industry.

Those could be sugary contrails if new research into sugarcane jet fuel is adopted by the aviation industry.

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One day, in the near future, you might board a jet to fly to Europe, and the plane might be powered by sugar.

Sweet idea, right?

A group of researchers in Illinois is working on alternative fuel that powers passenger jet planes. And one solution, they've discovered, is refining oil from sugar cane.

Steve Long, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois, says that sugar cane is a logical choice because it naturally produces an oil that is easily refined into jet fuel.

Steve Long

Steve Long (Steve Long Lab)

The process seems simple: harvesting the oil the sugar cane naturally produces, and cultivating it to produce more of that oil.

The result, Steve says, is a product that is capable of fueling jets, that costs only about 25 per cent more than the price of traditional, fossil-derived fuel. And that's compared to the current price of fuel, which is comparatively low.

But one of the most significant issues with existing biofuels is that they often are made from crops grown on land that could otherwise be used for food. Farmers who would traditionally grow food crops are switching to biofuels because they're more lucrative.

That's where the real advantage of sugar cane comes in.

"Sugar cane can be grown on very poor soils," he says, meaning that the land used to cultivate sugar cane isn't often suitable for any other food crop.

Moreover, the parts of the plant that aren't used to create fuel can be used to power the process of conversion, further reducing the carbon cost.

The result, he says, is a carbon footprint that's about 80 per cent smaller than the process of refining fossil fuels. So could sugar-cane fuel ever fully replace fossil fuel to power jets?

He says if most of the available land for sugar cane in the U.S. was cultivated, it could ultimately provide about two thirds of the fuel used by American carriers.

So how is it being received by the aviation industry?

"We haven't seen a lot of response," he concedes, but adds as the cost of fuel inevitably goes up, biofuel will doubtlessly become a more viable option.