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Air travel is picking up steadily as more Americans get vaccinated. While that's good news for the industry, it's bad news for climate change prevention efforts. Miles O'Brien looks at efforts to reduce airplane emissions and help airlines fly greener skies, with reporting done in tandem with the international journalism project called, "Covering Climate Now," and co-produced by PBS NOVA.
Air travel is picking up steadily as more Americans get vaccinated.
But while that may be good news for the industry, it's bad news for the creation of more emissions and climate change.
Miles O'Brien looks at efforts to reduce those emissions and to help airlines fly greener skies.
It's part of our ongoing coverage on the consequences of climate change and our reporting done in tandem with the international journalism project called Covering Climate Now. It's also a co-production with PBS "NOVA."
In the world of aviation, a new era is taking shape.
What began with Kitty Hawk, then moved into the jet age, is now going electric.
In less than 12 months, we have went from zero to flying not one, but two actual practical aircraft.
Roei Ganzarski is CEO of MagniX, which makes high-powered lightweight electric motors, ideally suited for flight.
Our goal as a company is to build a generational business that, 40 years from now, people will be flying an electric aircraft propelled by MagniX motors.
In May of 2020, they flew this Cessna Caravan retrofitted with one of their motors. It's a milestone, but also a baby step. A Caravan with a turbine engine can carry nine people 900 miles. The batteries on this plane limit the payload to four people, the range to 100 miles.
So, is it too soon to be practical?
That's not the question. The right question is, does anyone need a caravan that can take today four people 100 miles? The answer to that is yes.
Pound for pound, liquid fuel contains 16 times more energy than the best batteries. So, while short hops on smaller planes may be possible, the batteries needed to fly big airliners on long flights would make the plane way too heavy.
Karen Thole heads the mechanical engineering department at Pennsylvania State University.
I think it's not really within our — my lifetime that we're going to get to a fully electric aircraft that is a — maybe a twin-aisle, large aircraft that can fly across the ocean.
Globally, the aviation industry burns 90 billion gallons of jet fuel a year, contributing between 2 and 2.5 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
We are at a crisis right now. We need to come up with new solutions. And those solutions are still going to take a long time to penetrate the entire fleet.
Many airlines are offsetting emissions by funding carbon reductions elsewhere, so-called carbon credits.
Sara Bogdan is head of sustainability at JetBlue.
Today, ultimately, we need liquid fuels. The good news is, it doesn't have to be fossil fuels. Sustainable aviation fuel exists. It is well-proven. Airlines have been flying on it for some time, including JetBlue.
Today, airliners fueling up in California use four million gallons of sustainable fuel a year.
One supplier, Neste, refines its green fuel from used cooking oils. It reduces carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent before it is blended with fossil fuel.
Our goal is to have over 100 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in the market by the end of 2025. So, that's a big jump. But we still got to get to 90 billion.
Jennifer Holmgren is CEO of LanzaTech, a Chicago company focused on making fuel and all kinds of other products with recycled CO2 captured from smokestacks at steel mills.
So, this is probably the largest dedicated gas fermentation laboratory in North America.
Biologist Sean Simpson co-founded the company in his home country, New Zealand, 16 years ago. They are harnessing the power of an ancient microbe called clostridium autoethanogenum first isolated in rabbit droppings.
They began exposing it to the gases that are belched from smokestacks at steel mills. At first it was a finicky eater, but, over time, the microbe started devouring the waste during a fermentation process, creating ethanol.
It is like a brewery. It's as simple as that.
In traditional fermentation, we feed sugar it. In our case, our organisms don't eat sugar. They eat gases. We built the brewery of tomorrow that hopefully will save our bacon.
The technique can make all kinds of smokestacks and landfills a source of recycled carbon.
The molecules that were being fermented, OK, the gas that was being fermented, I knew was not available just in steel mills. It was available in refineries. It was going to be available in chemical plants. It was going to be available if we gasified solids.
So, all of a sudden, it was like, holy cow, this can have a really big impact.
LanzaTech has worked hard to scale up the process. One commercial plant is operating in China and two others are under construction. There are two more being built in India and Belgium.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found a way to convert the ethanol into jet fuel. LanzaTech spinoff LanzaJet hopes to produce 10 million gallons a year at a plant in Georgia by 2022.
The idea that you can turn the CO2 waste out of a steel mill into fuel is positively magical, isn't it?
I found it completely magical, and I still find it completely magical. And, of course, they have proven it to be — to work.
Virgin Holdings founder and chairman Richard Branson became enamored with the idea a decade ago. In 2018, one of his Virgin Atlantic 747s flew from Orlando to London with LanzaTech fuel in its tanks, a one-time proof of concept.
Tell us about why you did that and what that proved.
It was pioneering, but it was still in the sort of very early, early days. But it was just trying to get the world to know that there was there was this wonderful little company that was pushing the boundaries forward and that that, hopefully, one day governments and — would come in and support them enough to make it make it really hum.
Sustainable aviation fuel comes with a premium price, in some cases, twice its fossil fuel counterpart.
In California, the business model works because the state has passed laws incentivizing fuel suppliers like Neste to refine fuel with less carbon and sell it to JetBlue and others.
California has been an incredible proof point of how these fuels can grow and become lucrative and be available to the customers who are looking for them. We're supportive of additional states adding incentives, and then also for a federal perspective, so that we can see it more broadly.
So long as people choose flights based on the lowest fare, carbon-neutral fuels will have a hard time taking flight, without some incentives.
But it is a proven way to start picking some high-hanging fruit in the climate change challenge.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Skokie, Illinois.
"NOVA"'s documentary "The Great Electric Airplane Race" premieres May 26 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time/8:00 p.m. Central on PBS.
Watch the Full Episode
Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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