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The Greenest Planes of the Future Could Run on Plant-Based Fuel

Say what you want about Elon Musk, but the man is a genius. At the helm of Tesla, he has almost single-handedly sparked the mainstream electric vehicle revolution. That progress has jump-started significant changes in the aviation industry as well. So far, however, it’s unclear whether electric-powered planes are a viable or sustainable option for worldwide air travel. Now, some forward-thinking experts are looking to alternative sources of fuel that are much, much greener — literally.

Right now, the most promising alternative to traditional aviation fuel is called sustainable aviation fuel or “SAF.” Unlike conventional fossil jet fuels, SAF is a plant-based alternative created by refining organic products like cooking oil and agricultural waste. During the fuel’s production, CO2 is naturally absorbed via photosynthesis, then released when burned by an airplane’s engine. Boeing’s Paul McElroy explains that “when the fuel is used in an engine, it releases the absorbed carbon, effectively recycling it. By comparison, fossil fuels are releasing carbon that was buried in the Earth for millions of years, increasing the amount of CO2 in today’s atmosphere.” The cyclical process could lower net greenhouse gasses emissions by up to 80%.

There are substantial hurdles to overcome before the aviation industry can make the switch to SAF. First, the fuel is expensive — up to four times the cost of its fossil-based counterpart. Second, because the concept is still in its infancy, SAF is in short supply. There just aren’t enough sources producing it right now. More than 46 million flights take off annually, and that translates to an almost unimaginable amount of fuel.

There’s no question that our current model of air travel isn’t sustainable. By most estimates, global air travel — including passengers and cargo — represents as much as 3% of the world’s carbon emissions. As the world’s population increases, so will the demand for flying. Something needs to change. Thankfully, the aviation industry is seeking an ambitious new way forward. It has publicly committed to carbon-neutral growth by this year and to halving carbon emissions by 2050 (based on 2005 levels).

There are other glimmers of hope for a world with greener air travel. Electric-powered planes are an option, although the technology is not without challenges. In December, Canada’s Harbour Air completed the world’s first successful, electric-powered commercial test flight over Vancouver. With the help of a 750-horsepower, battery-powered engine, the tiny, six-seater plane flew for just 15 minutes. Still, it was a start, and it proved that electric planes are already here. The issue engineers are struggling with is capacity. It’s one thing for an all-electric motor to propel a handful of passengers on a “puddle jump.” Providing enough juice for a transatlantic hop in a 500-passenger Airbus A380 is another matter. Without breakthrough advancements in battery density, even short-haul flights powered by batteries could be another ten years off. Large passenger aircraft will need to rely on liquid fuels — whether fossil- or plant-based — for the foreseeable future.

If you’re keen to take to the skies while minimizing your carbon footprint, check out FlyNano — a one-man electric seaplane that requires no pilot’s license.

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Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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