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Originally published Sunday, July 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Farnborough Air Show

Aviation industry shows green efforts at Farnborough

The aviation industry, including Boeing, used the Air Show to press the message that it is making great progress in reducing its carbon emissions.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

How fuel-efficientare modern airliners?

Fuel efficiency in airplanes is commonly measured internationally in "liters per 100 passenger kilometers." A passenger kilometer represents moving one person a distance of one kilometer.

New airplanes today average 3.5 liters per 100 passenger kilometers.

That's equivalent to 67 passenger miles per gallon, comparable to the efficiency of the very best hybrid cars if driven with no passengers.

The 787 Dreamliner and the A380 superjumbo target fuel consumption of less than 3 liters per 100 passenger kilometers. Precise fuel-efficiency claims depend upon the assumptions made as to how full the average airplane is and how much cargo is carried.

Source: IATA and Boeing

FARNBOROUGH, U.K. — Boeing's special environmental display at the Farnborough Air Show resembled an airy art installation.

A spiraling walkway led into the windowless interior of the central exhibition space, where a white floor accentuated the brightly colored and translucent displays.

Ethereal music, liquid and soothing, played softly in the ear.

And catching the eye, along one wall stood five large tanks of swirling, aerated water, in successively deepening shades of green from light lime to dark forest.

Pond scum has never looked so beautiful nor been displayed with such reverence.

The first tank contained a concentration of 0.1 percent algae; the fifth tank was 0.5 percent. Boeing wants the world to cultivate this stuff on a vast scale and extract plant oil from it.

"It makes extremely good jet fuel," said Darrin Morgan, Boeing's director of business analysis for environmental strategy.

The aviation business is under fierce attack from some environmentalists as a despoiler of the planet by spewing carbon dioxide into the air.

In Europe, where this sentiment is strongest, governments are set to impose carbon-emissions quotas on aviation that will essentially impose pollution taxes on airlines beginning in 2012.

In response, the aviation industry — including Boeing — used the weeklong air show that officially ends today as a platform to press the message that it is not only striving to be green but is making great progress.

Billboards showed the outline of a giant Airbus A380 double-decker jet, cut from a green leaf. The 550-seat superjumbo airplane is super-efficient in terms of fuel used per passenger.

GE Aviation promoted its new engine design with messages on footprints painted on the ground — calling it a "leap forward" in fuel burn with a smaller carbon footprint.

And every trash can on the show grounds was sponsored by Bombardier, of Canada, to promote its new fuel-sipping CSeries jet.

Occasionally, these efforts came across as empty words.

"Bombardier thanks you for using this recycling bin," read the big slogan on one can, though it had no instructions for separating contents and passers-by dumped everything and anything into it.

And, of course, the daily flying display was a dazzling spew of carbon dioxide and noise. Twin jets of flame from extra-thrust afterburners could be seen at the back end of every jet fighter that roared almost vertically into the sky.

Talking to a newspaper reporter on a terrace overlooking the airfield, Airbus Executive Vice President Tom Williams had to jam his fingers in his ears and stop talking every few minutes as an old, but majestic delta-winged Avro Vulcan strategic bomber interrupted his flow.

And when that A380 did its awe-inspiring acrobatic flyby every day, with the slogan "A better environment, inside and out" emblazoned on its tail, it was flying with no passengers — so its fuel burn per person was somewhere in the stratosphere.

And yet, the aviation business, especially on the commercial side, has a story of genuine environmental progress to tell.

In fact, airplane technology has grown steadily and significantly cleaner and greener for decades and long before it was fashionable.

Boeing Commercial Airplane CEO Scott Carson recalled at a news conference here how a year ago at Seattle's Boeing Field, a flying parade of the entire 7-series line of Boeing jets provided an unintended display of environmental progress.

The 707 could be seen approaching from 25 miles away, trailing columns of black smoke. Its noise "shook the earth we stood on," Carson said.

In contrast, he said, the 777 "whispered by with no visible (emissions) signature."

The 787 Dreamliner will be another big step forward in that progression.

Likewise, the A380, for all its size, is one of the quietest planes in the sky and with a full load rivals a hybrid car in fuel efficiency per passenger.

The reason is cold, practical business: fuel burn creates emissions and also burns airline money.

Boeing and Airbus are motivated to build ever-cleaner planes so that the airlines find them cheaper to fly.

With jet-fuel prices at an all-time high, pressure from environmentalists is hardly needed to spur more efficiency improvements.

What's new is that Boeing must now have both engineers and marketers working on their green innovations.

The company's arty environmental-technology display here promoted all that Boeing is doing through technology.

The presentations covered everything from efforts to radically streamline the air-traffic flow around airports to the search for alternatives to oil.

The star display was the algae tanks.

Boeing is pushing so-called "second-generation biofuels" as a potential power source for jets that could transform the environmental impact of aviation.

The first generation of biofuels — made from corn, soybeans or palm oil — has recently come under attack for contributing to rising food prices and deforestation.

Showing a visitor around the display, Boeing's Morgan defined "second generation" biofuels as coming from crops that don't compete with food, don't use too much freshwater and don't cause changes in land use.

Morgan said the first-generation fuels were promoted by the farming industry. The second generation will be promoted by fuel consumers who demand sustainability.

"Fair Trade coffee is the model," he said.

"The consumer decides what is acceptable — in this case airlines and fliers."

Early second-generation sources include oil from jatropha seed pods, which will be used in the fuel blend to power an Air New Zealand flight later this year, and babassu nuts, used in the first biofuel test flight by Virgin Atlantic in February.

But neither is nearly as good as algae, Morgan said.

"It grows naturally in an aquatic environment; it doubles in mass every day; it's very plant-oil dense," he said.

Morgan said the algae — grown either in shallow ponds or closed tanks — is so productive that the entire supply of fuel for the world's fleet of commercial jets could be provided in a cultivated area about the size of West Virginia.

"Of course, West Virginia may not be the right place," he deadpanned. He envisages ideal cultivation areas in such places as Australia or the desert Southwest of the United States, where crops won't grow and salty aquifers or the sea provide reusable water.

The attraction of biofuels is not simply that they burn cleaner, though they do emit less carbon dioxide than regular fuel.

But the energy source, instead of being a finite, shrinking resource, is one that is cultivated and replaceable — "sustainable" in the jargon of environmentalists.

Petroleum-based fuel extracts carbon from the large, but shrinking fossil-fuel store beneath the earth.

By contrast, creating energy from cultivated plants results in simply cycling the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and that same carbon dioxide is released when the fuel is burned.

The idea is "creating fuel at the same rate we are using it," said Billy Glover, director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "Right now we are drawing from our savings account."

Morgan said Boeing isn't planning to go into the fuel business, but it will do everything it can to promote research so extracting oil from algae becomes commercially viable on a large scale.

The technology is in its infancy, but current oil prices provide a strong incentive.

Boeing's rosy forecast is that as much as 5 to 10 percent of aviation fuel could come from this source by 2015.

It remains to be seen if the aviation business can convince green activists and legislators that it is doing enough.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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