Fuels of the future?

Fuels of the future?

Two Ryerson University engineers are testing algae-based biofuels to help green the airline industry
October 21, 2009
Kamran Behdinan (left) and Zouheir Fawaz (right)
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Kamran Behdinan (left) and Zouheir Fawaz (right) in the FRAMES facility.
Ryerson University

A recession-related dip in flight demand might actually be considered a green blessing. Just a small one, mind you. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that aviation is responsible for up to nine percent of the total global climate-change  impact of human activity, so it would take a huge drop to make a significant difference.

What is really needed is a climate-friendly alternative to the kerosene fuel that powers airplanes. And that is what Ryerson University professors Zouheir Fawaz and Kamran Behdinan are working to change in the next generation of aircraft.

In collaboration with researchers in India and Canada, Fawaz and Behdinan are testing algae-based biofuels they hope could run the world’s gas-turbine aircraft engines by 2015.

“Engine company Pratt & Whitney Canada commissioned us to test a new fuel that has never been used before. To make sure it complies with safety regulations, we need to put that fuel through its paces,” says Fawaz, founder of Ryerson’s Facility for Research on Aerospace Materials and Engineered Structures (FRAMES). The state-of-the-art facility includes a “clean room,” where materials can be tested without the threat of contamination.

“The big question is, Will the metals and plastics inside the engine survive if we use biofuels?” he says. “We’ll be looking at issues like corrosion, erosion, rapid aging, all kinds of degradations of properties.”

Inspiration for the collaboration with India came from a Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada announcement in 2008 that highlighted $17 million in Canada-India science-and-technology joint initiatives.

Around $5 million went to the partnership on greener aircraft. India develops the fuel samples overseas, and a network of Canadian institutions carries out testing in “real life” and in computer simulations.

“Because there’s a commercial application for this, it’s essential that we pursue this research efficiently so that our partners can get a return on their investment quickly,” says Behdinan, chair of Ryerson’s department of aerospace engineering and director of the Ryerson Institute for Aerospace Design and Innovation. Major partners include Ryerson, the National Research Council, Université Laval, McGill University, Pratt & Whitney Canada and India’s Infotech Enterprises Ltd.

The testing involves shaking, baking or soaking 70 different aircraft materials in the biofuels for, in most cases, up to a month. The researchers then apply a battery of tests on the materials to see whether their mechanical properties have degraded beyond normal wear and tear and check for any other property degradation under a high-powered microscope.

“This research isn’t particular for one kind of aircraft,” says Fawaz, “so there’s great potential for job creation in all sectors of the aircraft community once this biofuel research is completed.”

New facilities are being sought across the country, says Behdinan, with a possible expansion of FRAMES to allow materials to be tested at even higher temperatures.

“Let me put it this way,” adds Fawaz. “There are obvious commercial and environmental benefits from this research. And Canada is poised to be on the leading edge because we’re jumping in right now with ideas.”