When one thinks of transportation in the United States, they immediately think of the automobile. No other country has been defined by the automobile as the US. Since the primary fuel for the automobile is petroleum based, there has been increasing debate on how to come up with a cleaner solution. With alternatives such as biodiesel and ethanol, the future has yet to be defined.
However, there are other parts of our transportation system that do not readily come to mind. Airlines play a major role the US transportation system as do trains. How else would it be possible to get from Boston and Los Angeles in a matter of hours? Or see the back country of New Mexico in a climate controlled environment? The fact is that airplanes and trains also contribute CO2 and other pollution to our environment. Airplanes contribute about 2% of the global CO2 emissions with trains being on average, 10 times less. If one calculates CO2 emissions per passenger, trains are the clear winner.
So, if a train is far more fuel efficient than an airplane, why don’t we switch to trains in the US? Amtrak is struggling to make a profit these days and most rail lines are owned by freight companies, forcing passenger rail to take a back seat. Besides, the US has invested too much money into the inefficient, polluting, degrading transportation system that it has and there are a lot of corporations that want to keep it that way.
So accepting the status quo, what else can we do besides reduce CO2 emissions from cars? Target the next big culprit, airplanes. Interestingly, airplane manufacturers face the same obstacles as auto manufacturers and are looking at some of the same alternatives, in particular biodiesel, which is a form of diesel fuel that is derived from biological sources such as vegetable oil.
Biodiesel is nothing new in the US as most diesel cars and trucks have been able to consume it with little modification. In fact, some households produce their own biodiesel from oils collected from fast food restaurants. Remember Biodiesel Man from Dirty Jobs? This begs the question: If an ordinary American can make biodiesel out of Diego’s waste, then why can’t the multi-billion dollar aircraft industry?
Well, they can. Boeing and Virgin Atlantic have teamed up to test a blend of biodiesel and Jet-A fuel in a 747. This test, while a step in the right direction, is more of a publicity stunt than actual scientific research. I unfortunately, can’t find the reference, but I read an article where the plan was to run a single engine on the blend, while the other three engines burn regular Jet-A.
However, leave it to the small guys to fully test this idea. Greenflight International recently flew an L-29 military jet on straight biodiesel. The jet climbed all the way to 17,000 feet and handled normally. However, the Czech made jet was designed to run on various fuels, including home eating oil in case supplies of one type were scarce during a time of war.
Despite both of these tests, one must be encouraged by the accelerated development of finding alternative fuels. Just like the automobile industry, the aircraft industry is still a long way away from being fully operational on renewable and clean fuel. In both cases, it the consumer that must speak louder and make a larger difference. As I stated previously, trains offer lower CO2 emissions per passenger than either the car or airplane. I encourage everyone to make smart decisions and break from the mold when it comes to green transportation. If you can, ride a bike!