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Published: 4 July 2012  
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Countries involved in the project described in the article:
Austria  |  Belgium  |  Canada  |  France  |  Germany  |  Italy  |  South Africa  |  United Kingdom
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ALFA BIRD – Bio-fuelling air travel

Carbon dioxide emissions and decreasing global reserves of fossil fuels are two of the biggest challenges that must be addressed in the 21st century. Developing fuels that do not rely on petroleum and discovering other alternative fuels is one way to help decrease the carbon emissions that impact climate change, reduce the growing cost of fuel, and provide more ecologically and economically sustainable air travel.

©Fotolia © Fotolia, 2012

Alfa-Bird (Alternative Fuels and Biofuels for Aircraft Development) is a European Union funded research project that is testing existing biofuels and new alternative fuels as a means of ensuring the long-term viability of the international air transportation industry.

"We are looking at a potential fuel that is produced from common yeast," said project coordinator Olivier Salvi. "This is quite innovative."

Large-scale production of biofuels requires considerable amounts of plants and biofuel from stocks such as corn has pushed up food prices. Developing fuels from a living organism, for example yeast, could be a significant step towards sustainable, renewable sources of energy that do not compete with the food chain. Its ease of genetic manipulation and cultivation could make yeast the next oil provider for biofuel production.

The specific conditions of flying, such as the cold high in the sky, together with the fact that aircrafts typically remain in use for decades, mean that finding suitable and economically viable alternatives to traditional fuels for air planes is not as easy as it may seem. Alfa-Bird researchers worked to produce a fuel involving a specific type of yeast, and they have been able to synthesise innovative molecules that could be used as renewable biofuel.

Salvi works with Stuttgart, Germany-based EU-VRi - European Virtual Institute for Integrated Management – which oversees the project's coordination. The company is also responsible for the economic analysis of the use of different types of alternative fuels being developed and tested by the Alfa-Bird team. The results of the project include comparisons of test fuels with fuels currently being used, as well as corrosion tests and economic assessments.

In the first part of the project, researchers looked at the viability of the new fuel products. Reducing CO2 emissions is a major element of the EU's 2020 Strategy, so they also took into consideration the EU's priorities to use more renewable fuels as well as the goals of the EU's emissions trading scheme.

Because of the global character of the aviation industry, the sector would greatly benefit if Alfa-Bird researchers were able to develop a process to produce fuel anywhere in the world. Additionally, the local production of fuel would enhance the security of energy supplies and reduce the cost and environmental impact related to transporting fuel, Salvi added. Further, producing fuels in the EU would create jobs for Europeans and save fuel transportation costs.

Several major airlines have expressed an interest in the project's end result. Many of these companies are paying attention to their emissions, Salvi said. And the cost of fuel is becoming even a larger portion of their operating costs. It is therefore important for airline companies to know in the future which fuels will replace those currently being used.

Alfa-Bird's research will continue after the grant period expires in June 2012. "We are not looking at what will be in the tank of the aircraft in the next 10 years, but rather in the next 20 years," Salvi said.

Project details

  • Participants: Germany (Coordinator), France, Italy, United Kingdom, Austria, Belgium, South Africa, Canada
  • FP7 Proj. N° 213266
  • Total costs: € 9 762 582
  • EU contribution: € 6 822 685
  • Duration: July 2008 - June 2012

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