February 29, 2024

How To Make Air Travel More Sustainable

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As we gear up for yet another hectic holiday season, more and more people are going to be traveling—with roughly half of them opting to fly to their destinations. That also means we’re going to see yet another spike in carbon emissions due to airplanes. One estimate from Quardle found that taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than a single person would create in an entire year.

However, new research from Arizona State University offers a glimmer of holiday hope: decarbonizing the U.S. Air industry is a whole lot easier than we think.

A new study published Nov. 14 in the journal Nature Sustainability found that we can drastically cut carbon emissions in airplanes by replacing conventional jet fuel with biofuels, which are made of renewable, biological matter like plants. Specifically, it would be derived from a grass called miscanthus that would be grown on 23.2 million hectares of under-utilized farm land—providing enough biofuel for the entire U.S. Aviation industry.

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“We demonstrate that it is within reach for the United States to decarbonize the fuel used by commercial aviation, without having to wait for electrification of aircraft propulsion,” Nazli Uludere Aragon, a sustainability researcher at ASU and co-author on the study, said in a statement.

The study’s authors note that this method would be more efficient than traditional fossil fuel-based propulsion due to its use of marginal agricultural lands, or land that has poor soil quality and isn’t as fertile. As such, it’s often under utilized so there’s a whole lot of it lying around.

However, the ASU researchers found that miscanthus grass can grow easily on such lands. Moreover, it doesn’t pose a threat to the soil or surrounding ecosystems. The crop can then be turned into an effective biofuel for airplanes much in the same way corn is used to create ethanol for cars.

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“The current way we produce sustainable jet fuel is very land inefficient and not on a large scale,” Nathan Parker, co-author on the study and an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability at ASU, said in a statement. “There are very limited ways that aviation could become low carbon emitting with a correspondingly low climate impact and this is one way we’ve shown that is feasible and can get the aviation industry to be carbon neutral through agriculture.”

The study adds that growing miscanthus for biofuel is also economically lucrative to the farmers and owners of the agricultural land. The authors say this is crucial as it gives a monetary incentive to grow and produce the biofuel—which gives it a better chance of success and widespread adoption.

So until electric planes are built and widely adopted, biofuels offer our best shot at decarbonizing the friendly skies. Of course, you could also just not travel this holiday season—but we know mom and dad aren’t going to like that very much.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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