Students Melissa Dickerson and Ryan Lewandowski sit in the cab of the Purdue University Embrarer Phenom 100 on the first day of class. Earlier this summer, the plane successfully landed in Oshkosh, Wis., for an international aviation show.
Students Melissa Dickerson and Ryan Lewandowski sit in the cab of the Purdue University Embrarer Phenom 100 on the first day of class. Earlier this summer, the plane successfully landed in Oshkosh, Wis., for an international aviation show.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Students and faculty at Purdue University are working to take biofuel use in aviation to new heights.

A faculty-and-student duo piloted the Purdue Embrarer Phenom 100 to the recent Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture, one of the largest international plane shows.

One of the airplane’s engines was filled with typical jet fuel, and the other was filled with a biofuel blend. The plane was flown from the Purdue airport to Oshkosh, Wis.

“There have been many demonstration flights, but mostly of larger jets,” said Richard Simmons, executive director of research at the AirTIES Research Center. “This was unique because it involved a smaller aircraft in a university setting.”

Simmons said that it is one of the first university jets to travel using a biofuel blend. Upon arrival, the jet was taxied to the exhibit area and viewed by air show attendees.

“The fuel was approved and meets the same specifications as a jet fuel,” Simmons said. “There was very little concern about performance. That’s one reason we want to go back and compare performance data and validate it.”

“At this point in time, we think the flight went really well,” added Denver Lopp, professor of aviation technology at Purdue and co-director of the AirTIES Research Center. “We pulled the measurements off of that engine. We borescoped it before and after, which means we actually did inspections on the engine and will compare them.”

Lopp also will study emission rates and make other comparisons to see how the biofuel blend performed against the other fuel.

Though the process to approve new fuel blends is lengthy and expensive, Simmons expects to see higher volumes of biofuel blends on the market in five to 10 years.

Lopp and Simmons both said that the potential for biofuel use in aviation is high. Industry supporters also believe researching alternative fuel for planes is a good idea.

“We’re working with Mercurius Biofuels as part of a (Department of Energy) grant, a $4.6 million grant,” Lopp said. “That grant is about using cornstalks, wheat stubble and products in the Midwest. It could be a fairly impactful economic improvement in the Midwest.

“We’re talking about a product that’s not competitive with food. It’s a value-added product. At this point, we could develop a whole new infrastructure to help support farmers and also to develop infrastructural support for processing, trucking and actually replacing import fuel.”

Lopp said that biofuel use also would improve local economies by using local resources. “I think the most important benefit is the impact on the environment,” Simmons said. “These fuels, in terms of total life cycle impact on the environment, have quite a bit less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum fuels.”

He explained that finding biofuel blends for planes is more complicated than in cars.

“The specs for gasoline fuel for ground transport are more forgiving, a bit broader,” he said. “The environment in which the jet engine has to operate is more severe. In terms of temperatures, the properties of the fuel, the density and so forth, it really affects the plane’s performance.”