Plants into planes: ORNL team thinks ethanol is future of commercial jet travel

“You know, we’ve been doing that for a long time. East Tennessee’s famous for its production of alcohol,” Dr. Jerry Tuskan laughed as he told us about an old version of fuel, made new again.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists are going even higher octane. From corn to jet fuel. They say they have a solution to combat our warming climate. That could also mean more jobs.

“We’re talking about a billion gallons of aviation biofuel needed there,” Dr. Tuskan said.

You’d never feel a difference from your aisle seat. Dr. Tuskan said that biofuel could be realistic in just a couple decades.

“Aviation biofuel economically available to the airlines industry,” Dr. Peter Thornton said.

The Oak Ridge team proved ethanol jet fuel works. From plants to planes.

“A renewable fuel means that you’ve pulled the CO2 out of the atmosphere,” Dr. Peter Thornton said.

Dr. Peter Thornton said aviation speeds up how fast the climate is warming. “2-3%. That sounds like a small amount,” Dr. Thornton said.

“That helps the emissions. But that also helps the bottom line of the airline,” Dr. Thornton said.

And it won’t take farming acres away from food. Here’s how it works:

“At the top, we have our ethanol and other reacting gases here,” ORNL’s Dr. Zhenglong Li said as he demonstrated the new reactor for WVLT News. “Flowing through this reactor. And the ethanol reaction is happening on this catalyst here.”

Dr. Zhenglong Li kept it simple for us, saying a lot of this is about time and money being saved.

“Without catalysts there, it might take days,” Dr. Li told WVLT.

Following his steps, it now takes seconds or minutes.

Dr. Tuskan believes that one day, half of all commercial jet fuel could come from renewable sources.

“So there’s no net gain of carbon in the atmosphere,” Dr. Thornton said.

Apart from helping the planet and saving money, there’s this:

“Locally in Tennessee... there are several ethanol bar refineries. New technology like ours can help promote the local bio-economy. And also create more green jobs,” Dr. Li told WVLT.

Dr. Thornton said he doesn’t think we’re too late to stop this warming. Because the plants absorb carbon dioxide, this biofuel acts as a ‘sink’ for carbon. Thornton and Tuskan think that will counteract the fuel burning.

All three scientists agree: the weight of a battery pack needed to fly a plane is just too heavy to make sense for the commercial airline industry.

Source: WVLT, by Ben Cathey

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Published August 12, 2021