There’s more than one way to study the impact of biofuels. For NASA scientists, it means trailing an aircraft from as little as 300 feet behind while flying 34,000 feet in the air.
Earlier this year, a NASA-led team conducted a series of carefully choreographed flights over California in order to sniff out how aircraft emissions differ when using petroleum fuels or biofuels. Early results from the Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions (ACCESS II) experiment confirm that blended biofuel is the cleaner-burning fuel.
"Our findings show we definitely see a 50 percent reduction in soot emissions from the DC-8 when it burns the blended fuel as opposed to jet fuel alone," said Bruce Anderson, ACCESS principal investigator from NASA's Langley Research Center.
The DC-8 is a NASA science workhorse: a flying laboratory equipped to collect—or, in this case, produce—data for basic Earth science research. During the ACESS experiment, scientists took advantage of the aircraft's segregated fuel tank. On the fly, the pilot switched the fuel type sent to each of the four engines. The engines burned either jet fuel, or a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and a renewable alternative produced from camelina plant oil. With each change of fuel, three other instrumented aircraft took turns lining up in the DC-8's wake and flying anywhere from 90 meters (300 feet) to more than 30 kilometers (20 miles) behind to catch a sniff.
Richard Moore, a post-doctoral fellow at NASA Langley, took this photograph with a DSLR camera on May 7, 2014, during an ACCESS II test flight over Edwards Air Force Base in California. The photo was taken from Langley's HU-25C Guardian jet as it descended toward NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center after a successful three-hour sampling flight behind the DC-8. The aircraft trailing the DC-8 in the photo was a Falcon 20-E5 jet owned by the German Aerospace Center.
The flight on May 7 was just the first in a series of flights that lasted throughout the month. After the campaign, researchers continued to examine the data to determine whether a reduction in soot emissions translates to a reduction in contrail formation, and how that might affect climate.