New Green Jet Fuel X Prize

The U.S. Department of Transportation hopes to excite interest in biofuels to help the ailing airline industry. In order to do so, it joined hands with the X Prize Foundation to launch a competition to develop a new bio-jet fuel, with an estimated prize of 10 million dollars.

Peter H. Diamandis - X PRIZE CEO (Credit: NASA/Bill Perry)
Peter H. Diamandis
(Credit: NASA/Bill Perry)

Global warming is an international problem, acknowledged by most the leaders of the world’s industrialized nations. Besides the environmental issues, reliance on oil has economic side effects as well as political implications. However, there is some disagreement as to how these subjects should be approached. Recently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been pushing an initiative to advance research of airline biofuels and recently transferred half a million dollars to the X Prize Foundation to help set up the new 10 million dollar prize.

Biofuel can be theoretically produced from any biological carbon source. The most common by far is photosynthetic plants that capture solar energy. Many different plants and plant-derived materials are currently used for biofuel manufacturing. The most common use for biofuels is as liquid fuels for automotive transport, since the use of renewable biofuels provides increased independence from petroleum and enhances energy security.

The project has received the expected support from the airline industry, which faces insolvency due to the soaring cost of fuel. Although some private efforts were made, such as billionaire Richard Bransen’s efforts with Virgin Airlines, relatively little progress has been made so far. The new prize corresponds with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) new Next Generation air traffic modernization program, “NextGen”. The growth program hopes to double air traffic by 2025, while keeping carbon emissions constant, by adopting new fuels or more efficient designs.

The X Prize Foundation hopes the final prize will amount to over $10 million once it can secure a private sponsor. U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, has stated: “It will be a competition that everyone wins, because a breakthrough in alternative jet fuels is a potential game-changer that could bring lower airline fuel costs, greater U.S. energy independence, and cleaner air.”

The move has been long coming. The X Prize Foundation has been in talks with the DOT and FAA since the 90s. After analyzing industry alternatives, the DOT and FAA finally decided that the X Prize was the best way to stimulate development in the industry. The grant is among the first from a government organization to the X Prize Foundation.

Aviation prize rules will be set over the next 14 months and will be based on input from a panel of industry experts. The X Prize Foundation will also try to secure private sponsors, hoping to launch the competition by 2011 and find a winner by 2016. Jason Morgan, senior director of prize development at the X Prize Foundation said: “With all the discussion about global warming, the increasing cost of oil, and the increasing congestion everyone’s feeling at the airport, we need to do something dramatic about it and we think it’s the contest model.”

TFOT has also covered the X Prize for green cars and the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. TFOT also recently covered the first hydrogen powered manned flight conducted in an aircraft modified by Boeing.

More information on the X Prize competition for aviation biofuels can be found on the foundation’s website.

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