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DOT Seeking Better Ways to Drive Development of Alternative Aviation Fuel Technology

The John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center), part of the US Department of Transportation (DOT), has issued a Broad Agency Announcement seeking research that would help it determine the best methods to drive the development of alternative aviation fuel technology. Options could include a technology prize along the lines of the Ansari X Prize.

The US Federal Government is developing a broad US aviation system upgrade plan called NEXTGEN to accommodate an expected tripling of US air traffic by the year 2025. NEXTGEN seeks to improve aviation industry efficiency from the engine to the cockpit to overall air traffic management. The FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy (AEE) has determined that two main research initiatives under its purview will contribute to the success of NEXTGEN: 1) improvements in aviation fuel-burn modeling; and 2) alternative aviation fuel technology development.

While FAA/AEE efforts to drive the first research initiative—fuel-burn modeling improvements—have mostly focused on the incentive method of Subject-Specific White Papers (SSWP) and science meetings to get results to date, NEXTGEN project managers at FAA/AEE and the Volpe Center are not certain this is the most practical way to pursue the second research initiative and drive the development of alternative aviation fuel technology.

The Volpe Center is inviting the submission of proposals for studies that will determine the best option for incentivizing the development of alternative aviation fuel technology. The studies must present a detailed investigation of the option, culminating in a research roadmap that brings the best minds in the aviation and science communities together to solve this technical problem and how to speed up, to the greatest extent possible, the process of finding a viable technology that will provide a non-fossil alternative aviation fuel.

Research projects may vary in size and scope, but should have a tentative budget target of $25,000 to $500,000 and must be completed within 14 months.

Each Proposed study is to consider only one of the following three options:

  1. SSWPs. In this method, spanning a few months, the SSWP writers are recruited from as large a pool of experts as possible in the technical area being addressed, draft papers are written according to a specific set of topics, papers are distributed, a science meeting is called to consider final papers, and the best plan for resolving the problem is identified. Within a few years of the first call for SSWPs, results may be received.

    The Volpe Center is looking for specific analysis on the likelihood of the SSWP method to gain the interest of other Government agencies, academia, aircraft manufacturers, aviation fuel manufacturers, and the public.

  2. Prize Incentives. The format of a prize competition such as the Ansari X Prize for space travel offers opportunities to generate huge technological breakthroughs by attracting diverse competitors and rewarding real outcomes, according to the Volpe Center.

    This format defines the problem, not the path to the solution, and encourages innovation. It also captures the Public's imagination and accelerates the pace of change. Experience has shown that the resulting advances in human behavior, industry transformation, and changes in public perception far exceed the value of the purse.

    Contractors exploring this route will need to assess its viability to the development of alternative aviation fuel technology.

  3. Other options. Consideration of other options includes the identification of the advantages, if any, to the Government taking no incentive action in this area of alternative aviation fuel technology development.



Rafael Seidl

It's good to see the DOT is rediscovering the fact that prize competitions do foster innovation. Try googling e.g. the Schneider trophy, which led to the famous Merlin engine used in the Spitfire.

However, this is all very high level meta stuff. There is no information on which public policy objectives are driving the interest in alternative fuels, nor any about the markets (military vs. commercial vs. recreational aviation, long vs. medium vs. short range) that the process will focus on. For example, switching from leaded avgas to diesel makes sense for light aircraft with piston engines but has no relevance for commercial jetliners.

Ultimately, the success or failure of a new fuel will be driven by engine compatibility, feasible production volumes for alternative fuels, distribution infrastructure / flex-fuel requirements (esp. internationally), fuel cost incl. possible future taxes, emissions impact and noise impact.


I have difficulty seeing how air travel will triple by 2025 given that we will most certainly have reached peak oil by then. If air travel has to compete for fuel with the remaining ICE cars then the cost of travel will be far too expensive for most people. Other than bio-fuel, I don't recall seeing any other real options for flight. (something tells me that a 40 mile PHEV airplane won't cut the mustard)


If it only triples I will be amazed. By 2025 the world population will be above 8B and the US will be 500M+. Personal transportation moving to electric and Bio should leave more fuel for aviation. Peak Oil will be kept at bay as 'protected areas' are opened for extraction.

Then again, the Three Gorges Dam in Inland China will most likely fail after a massive earthquake brought on by the sheer weight of all that water. Thousands will need to fly to China for the relief effort when the wall of water washes 1.2 billion people out to sea.

Good news: Emissions will drop dramatically. Bad news: Wal-mart shelves will be empty.


I'm sure that transportation will move to electric and bio, but not fast enough to avoid a decade or two of high gas prices.


Mining "protected areas" won't provide enough oil to do much for demand, ANWAR for example could only replace 5-7% of the USA's existing oil demand once it is up th max capacity. Rather high oil priceing will induce the USA to convert coal and oil shale reserves into oil, the USA oil shale reserves are estimated at perhaps 1.5 trillion barrels, or 75% the worlds original conventional oil reserves, but at todays oil pricing it is not economical to extract , post peaking oil pricing may make it very economical, then again environmental cost may make biofuels and electric more economical.

Rafael Seidl

Airbus just announced a successful test using GTL in one of the four engines of an A380 (cp. earlier tests with a B-52 by the US Air Force). The Airbus test was carried out at the request of Qatar Airways in collaboration with Shell, which is building a huge GTL plant in that country.

GTL does nothing for CO2 emissions and is expensive to produce. However, it is the easiest way to leverage the world's still-vast reserves of natural and associated gas for the aviation sector. Airbus does not expect renewable second-generation biofuels like BTL to become available in sufficient quantity or at acceptable cost much before 2020.

Like all F-T liquids, GTL is sulfur-free - unlike kerosine. All xTL fuels are chemically similar, the difference lies in the feedstock used to produce the syngas. Switching from GTL to BTL or WTL at some point down the road should therefore be relatively straightforward in engineering terms.

@ Joseph -

I suspect the Chinese did their homework on the geology underneath the Three Gorges Dam. The notion that the sheer weight of the water would cause a major earthquake seems a little far-fetched to me, I am not aware of any precedent.

The biggest risk for a dam is usually that the high pressure causes water to seep underneath or around it, eroding small tunnels in the rock. If this happens, it is an accelerating process that eventually leads to the total collapse of the dam due to inadequate vertical or lateral support. One way to counter the process is grouting, i.e. frequent inspections and plugging of any tunnels that may have formed with concrete. One particularly vulnerable dam is located North of Mosul, Iraq. Saddam Hussein had insisted on the location against the advice of his engineers.

Stan Peterson


I want to congratulate you on your most sagacious and at the same time oblivious remarks.

Aviation is a minor consumer of petroleum. As such, we will never run out of fuel for aviation as the bio-fuels cul-de-sac, alone, would provide more than enough for all aviation needs, essentially forever.

Yet you are sagacious enough in recognizing that we may have a few decades of "high prices". But you fail to recognize that those temporary "High price decades" are going on RIGHT NOW.

Conversion to electricity for ground transport, as is now finally getting visible to all, but has been known it is coming to anyone with any foresight for several years,even decades, will slash petroleum demand by around 60-70%, within a decade.

That will force a collapse of monopolistic, cartelized, petroleum prices that today bear no relationship to cost of production. Saudi Arabia can lift oil profitably for probably no more than $1-3 dollars a barrel. Even the shale oil, and oil sand, and coal-to-liquids ventures, extreme responses are profitable at around $30_$40 a barrel. And we haven't even mentioned the true cost of bio-fuels, an even more absurdly costly enterprise, supported only by huge tax subsidies, but still growing under the $60-100 barrel of the current and artificial, oil price umbrella.

Do you even fully understand what the hysteria-driven feared "Peak Oil" really means? It simply means that half of the oil, of a given quality, has been discovered. (On any thoughtful reflection, that is inherently unknowable proposition, but that is irrelevant.)

Even if demand were not to decline substantially as is certain to happen, it would mean that there is "only" as much oil as we have profligately consumed for the past couple of centuries, or "only" a few hundred years of oil left. But with demand in dramatic decline, augmented by that universal normal response of less costly substitution, now certain to occur, that supply stretches for millenia...

There are much better uses for raw material supplies of various organics, than to simply oxidize them.


@ Raphael:

You might want to review the events leading to the catastrophic failure of 62 Chinese dams including the enormous Banqiao Dam in 1975. An excerpt:

"On August 8, 12:30 a.m., the smaller Shimantan Dam, which was designed to survive a 1-in-500-year flood, failed to handle more than twice its capacity and broke upstream, only 10 minutes after Unit 34450 sent a request that would open the Banqiao Dam by air strike. A half hour later, at 1:00 a.m., water crested at the Banqiao Dam and it too failed. This precipitated the failure of 62 dams in total. The runoff of Banqiao Dam was 13,000 m³/s (10 acre feet/s) in vs. 78,800 m³/s (63 acre feet/s) out, and 701 million tons of water was released in 6 hours[1], while 1,670 million tons of water was released in 5.5 hours at upriver Shimantan Dam, and 15.738 billion tons of water was released in total."

This last number should give any engineer pause. To be fair, dams fail all over the world this being one of many. But the idea that people have done their "homework" sits better in some areas than others. Poor engineering, and failed human rights policy eventually yield disaster.

Rafael Seidl

@ Sullany -

1975 was a rather different time, especially in China. The country and its engineers have moved on since then. Besides, I see no indication that the catastrophic chain of events you describe was triggered by an earthquake, much less that this earthquake was triggered by excessive water levels in the Shimantam dam. It sounds as if regular rainfall had caused the water levels to swell and the operators waited too long with managing them. A small, controlled flood downstream would surely have been preferable to the disaster that unfolded.


There is no shortage of hydrocarbons on this planet. Just in north America we have enough natural bitumen, kerogen(oil shale), heavy oil, extra heavy oil for hundreds of years of use at current levels on a BTU to BTU basis. Lets not forget that 40-60 percent of all the oil already produced in existing fields is still in the ground. Conventional extraction only yields 25-40% recovery rates. Just in the existing oil field there is 300 billion barrels still down there. Oh and lets not forget the outer continental shelf. Geologists found in the outer continental shelf 400 more billion barrels before an executive order stopped them from looking. , And the artic yes including ANWR holds at least another 100 billion or so locked under the permafrost. Plus there is on the order of a TRILLON barrels in the bitumen deposits in Alberta. And at least another trillion in the green river formation and surrounding areas in UT, WY, and CO. No there is no shortage we just refuse to extract the resources for political and up till recently economic reasons. Canada is now achieving 80% recovery rates for in-situ steam assisted gravity discharge for its bitumen deposits economical at $25 BBL, in situ kerogen diogenisis is economical at $35 a barrel with raytheons RF heating method. The outer continental shelf out the 200 mile EEZ is reachable with new ultra deep water drilling ships also economical at $35-40 bbl. All said an done with the right political will we as north Americans have hundreds of years of fuels avalible to us at any price over $50 bbl. It we only 6 years ago that oil was $25 and under for decades only spiking in the 70 and early 80’s all these other sources are just now economical and they are being exploited as such. My graduating thesis is on supercritical solvent recovery of in-situ heated kerogen. So far the best supercritical solvent is CO2 of all things. With sufficient heating of the source rocks recovery rates upwards of 75% are being acheaved at the labritory scale. The EOR is 5-8 : 1 putting it on par with Canada;s bitumen projects or deep water drilling on a BTU in to BTU of product out basis. Economically its feasible at 37 to 50 a barrel depending on the source of the megawatts of power needed to run the heaters. Off peak nuclear or coal power is 1.5 to .5 cents a kwhr. Since rock is such a good thermal barrier you can run the heaters full blast all night and then let them sit off during the peak times of day the rocks will not significantly cool using a diurnal cycling. It takes weeks to heat the source rock to temperature 16 on 8 off cycling will only extend that a few more weeks. The power economics favor the lengthened heating phase strongly. Using CO2 solves the problem of water consumption in the arid west as the process of recovery uses no water. In fact all water must be removed from the formation before CO2 is introduced as its detrimental to the upgrading and recovery process. The water removed by heating can be condensed and recovered to be used for agriculture or human use following processing to remove any volatile organics that might have come up the well string with it. Once the political go ahead is given this country can ramp up shale oil to replace all imported oil in a matter of a few years in a decade we could be mass exporters of oil yet again with 80% recovery that 1.5 trillion barrels means we have more oil than Saudi and Iraq combined only Canada and Venezuela have more hydrocarbons than us. If you include coal in the mix the us is the hydrocarbon resource king of the world. Hear again its political why energy prices are the way they are not technical. The science is there with today’s technology to rid us of imported energy forever.


It is the energy you save that is more cost effective than the energy you develop at some point. We could find more methods of getting more out of old wells, drill deeper in the oceans and the arctic. An executive at Shell was once quoted as saying that we can get it, but it is going to be harder to get and more expensive.

As a society, we have to determine whether it is better to have mass transit, hybrids, hydrogen planes, electric trains or none of the above, some of the above or all of the above to some degree. It is our collective GDP and in democratic countries WE are suppose to decide on our futures, not some board room that was not elected by informed citizen voters. In corporations, the stock holders of the 100s of millions of shares outstanding can rarely have an influence. Even large institutional investors with 5-10% of the stock have a hard time penetrating the board room decisions.

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