A study led by NASA showed that use of biofuels in aircraft can slash carbon particle emissions by 70 percent and also curtail the formation of contrails, which are adversely impacting the atmosphere.

Generally, plant materials like halophyte and forest waste called camelina are used in making biofuels. Already, many airline companies like Virgin Atlantic and United Airlines, as well as the U.S. Air Force, are using biofuels in flying a portion of their fleet.

ACCESS Project

The Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions Study had NASA and other partners from Germany and Canada conducting tests by trailing a DC-8 aircraft that used a mix of jet fuel and biofuel as a camelina oil derivative.

The tests were conducted between 2013 and 2014 with the research aircraft following the NASA aircraft. Measurements taken during the observations on the carbon emissions from the exhaust and formation of contrails were analyzed.

The research has been published in Nature.

Harm From Contrails

The study makes specific mention of the formation of contrails resulting from the conjunction of hot emissions from aircraft engines and the cool air at high altitudes.

Though contrails contain only water vapor and ice crystals, the problem can worsen when cirrus clouds are formed, which may upset the natural weather processes.

"Soot emissions also are a major driver of contrail properties and their formation," observed Bruce Anderson, a scientist with the ACCESS project.

Anderson said the observed reductions in carbon particles measured during ACCESS were supposed to translate into gains of reduced ice crystal concentrations in contrails. The increased use of biofuels is expected to minimize the impact on Earth's atmosphere.

NASA will be continuing the study to assess the benefits of biofuels by testing for results on a QueSST, a supersonic X-plane.

Rising Pollution From Aircraft

There is a sense of urgency in the aviation industry to curb its carbon footprint. In 2015, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from aviation was 780 million tons, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

The International Air Transport Association has set a target of 10 percent use of biofuels by 2017, in line with the goal of reducing the industry's carbon footprint up to 80 percent in the years ahead.

Richard Clarkson, Aviation Policy officer at the European Commission, noted that there is a big role for biofuels in decarbonizing aviation.

Clarkson claimed that significant progress is being made in the use of biofuels in the last 10 years.

"Several pathways have now been certificated, and about 2,500 commercial flights have now taken place using some amount of biofuels," he said.

In Europe, many companies are also working out new products to make aviation greener.

SunChem, a biotech company, has developed a tobacco crop called "Solaris" to make energy out of tobacco. Cultivated by farmers, Solaris has been projected as a green opportunity for sustainable bioenergy. The project, which is certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials, operates in South Africa and Italy.

According to SunChem CEO Sergio Tommasini, Solaris is nicotine- and GMO-free and is a good source for bio-aviation fuel.

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