Sustainability: Sugarcane Jet Fuel Could Cut Emissions 80 Percent

Some people think sugar from sugarcane tastes a lot better in soda than corn syrup. But sugarcane also could help dramatically cut pollution from jet aircraft by 80 percent, if it’s used to make biofuel, according to a new study by University of California-Berkeley researchers. In a just-published article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said that using sugarcane biomass would dramatically reduce carbon pollution from aircraft, which contributes about 2 percent of human-generated carbon emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group, an industry organization.

At present, pollution from aircraft amounts to 705 million tons of carbon annually. The researchers have developed a new method of producing such fuel, which relies on complex chemical reactions involving sugars and waste material from the cane. One advantage of sugarcane as a biofuel source is the crop can be grown on land that’s not suitable for other types of crops. That gets around one of the major criticisms of biofuels, which is that they take over land that can be used to grow food for human consumption, and threaten food security in developing countries.

It’s been difficult to find cleaner renewable alternatives to conventional petroleum-based jet fuel, due to the latter’s special requirements. Jet fuel must be stable at low temperatures and high altitudes, and it must possess an exacting degree of lubricity. In addition, it can’t contain oxygen, because that would add too much mass and take up space in fuel tanks. The formula created by the Berkeley researchers solves those problems.

The method also could be used to develop cleaner lubricants for cars and trucks, as well as cleaner diesel fuel. The research was funded by energy giant BP.