Written by Jeremy R.C. Cox
The single biggest operational expense to you when you fly is the cost of the Jet Fuel that is fed through your engine. Even though the modern gas turbine ‘jet’ engine is significantly different than what was first designed and conceived by its inventors, this type of engine does require a considerable amount of fuel to enable it to achieve the necessary power levels to attain, and sustain flight within the stratosphere.
To illustrate the issue of consumption, and how engine manufacturers have changed the efficiency of their engines, as an example a four-engine Lockheed 'JetStar' from 1961 would burn as much as 1,400 USG of Jet-A fuel per hour. A 2010 Dassault Falcon 7X that flies 60 KTAS faster, provides almost twice as much cabin space, and delivers more than double the range of the vintage JetStar, has an hourly fuel burn of only 380 USG per hour. Obviously price is age related. You can pick-up a pretty decent JetStar for $600,000 U.S.D. or less. The Falcon 7X is going to run you something in the high $30 Mil to mid $40 Mil U.S. Dollar range.
The issue of ‘Peak Oil’ is a controversial one, where many who debate when this event will, or has occurred, are all pretty deeply divided (Peak Oil being the point at which global crude oil production ‘peaks’ and from this point on, the world’s oil supply is in decline and on its way to exhaustion.)
Excluding vegetable and animal oils, nuclear fission, and the combustion of natural renewable materials like wood and grass, virtually all other fuels that are used by combustion engines are derived from underground deposits of dinosaur and prehistoric rotted vegetation juice, more popularly known as fossil fuel. Coal powered the industrial revolution of the 1760’s, mainly thanks to the Scotsman, James Watt and Englishman, Matthew Boulton’s invention of the industrial steam engine. Unfortunately due to its bulkiness, the external combustion steam engine, travel was nowhere near as fast as it is today. It wasn’t until the useful application of petroleum oil as a replacement for coal along with the subsequent refinement of the early internal combustion engine, before air transportation became possible. This occurred at around the same time as Gugliemo Marconi’s communication revolution was underway with his invention of wireless telegraphy. Up until the present day, all subsequent non-military transportation systems have been entirely powered by a non-renewable fossil fuel.
There is now what appears to be a desperate search for both a renewable form of petroleum-like fuel product, and other alternative energy sources. Fortunately for the Green Movement, the ever deepening energy crisis is now proving more effective at meeting their environmental goals, rather than the decades of lobbying that they have been engaged in.
Ethanol distilled from cellulose rich materials like corn, sugar cane, beets, and grasses, etc. is taking up some of the slack found in a diminishing oil supply, but unfortunately this distillate does not contain sufficient calorific value to keep the industrial and transportation engines running at the same pace at which fossil fuels afford them. Scientists continue to seek out the best form of renewable ‘bio-fuel’ for the future. Many experiments with palm oil, soybeans, algae, nuts, animal fat, and other crops have proven successful and yet none of the resulting fuels has emerged as the ‘silver bullet’ answer to the problem.
The USAF, NASA, US Navy, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, GE, Sir Richard Branson, and New Zealand Airlines amongst others, along with the top engineering and research universities around the world, are working on this problem. The USAF in conjunction with NASA is working on a synthetic fuel (Bio-Jet) produced from coal (coal-gas.) The original process was developed by the Nazi’s during World War II, in-part because their fuel supply lines were being pounded by the allied forces. So far the U.S. version of this synthetic fuel when used in Jet Engines has only been successful when it is burnt in a 50/50 ratio of conventional jet fuel to Bio-Jet.
Similar results have been seen by the US Navy where they have managed to brew-up and distil a bio-fuel from a native U.S. flowering plant called Camelina. This renewable fuel must be mixed in a 50/50 ratio with petroleum based jet fuel to attain the heat requirements of their Jet Engines.
Before Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines amongst other enterprises, inked his order for 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, he made Boeing pledge in conjunction with the engine supplier General Electric, that all of the aircraft would be delivered capable of operating on his Virgin Fuels division Bio-Diesel derivatives. These are produced from various renewable sources including Algae, or the nuts from the Brasilian Babassu palm tree. In the Southern Hemisphere Air New Zealand is working in cooperation with Rolls-Royce to encourage the production and use of an Algae derived Bio-Jet fuel.
With ‘Peak Oil’ looming as the main driver for alternative fuels to be developed, the extraction and creation of bio-fuels are becoming more viable, even though they often require more energy to create, than what they produce in combustion. This is because they at least, are renewable.
My prediction for the future is that eventually we shall hit $25 to $30 U.S.D. per Gallon for Jet Fuel. At about this time, Bio or Synthetic Fuels will reach the same production output as current fossil fuel distillation; then the cost per Gallon will stabilize around $15 to $20 U.S.D. per Gallon. Today's national average is $5.68 U.S.D. per Gallon, according to Globalair.com's Aviation Fuel Price Index , therefore you can expect your operating costs to almost quadruple in the next couple of decades or so.
The most desirable solution to how aircraft will be powered in the future is probably electrical power instead of combustible fuels. This is most likely how all motorcars will be powered in the next 50 years, however can we expect the same to be true for all heavier-than-air, high speed jet aircraft as well?