NASA and 11 other research groups are testing two non-petroleum-based fuels in the pursuit of alternative fuels that can power commercial jets and address rising oil costs. The tests, being conducted at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California, are measuring the performance and emissions of two synthetic fuels derived from coal and natural gas, using the Fischer-Tropsch process.
The Fischer-Tropsch process is a chemical reaction in which a synthesis gas - a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen - is converted into liquid hydrocarbons of various forms. The process produces synthetic petroleum for use as a lubricant or fuel. The technology has been around for decades, but until now the high cost of building new plants to produce synthetic fuels has stymied interest.
The tests are using sampling probes placed downstream from the DC-8's right inboard engine. Researchers are testing 100 percent synthetic fuels and 50-50 blends of synthetics and regular jet fuel, and looking primarily at engine performance and aircraft emissions. It is thought that synthetic fuels create fewer particles and other harmful emissions than standard jet fuel. If this is found to be true, use of synthetic fuels could improve the air quality around airports.