NASA Research Analyzes Sustainable Aviation Fuel’s Effect on Aircraft Contrails

Airplane flying in sky of clouds

(Credit: NASA)

by | Oct 31, 2023

NASA, along with Boeing, United Airlines, and other partners, is researching how sustainable aviation fuels may reduce the global warming impact of airline contrails.

NASA has supported test flights from Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator program, an effort to analyze how SAF may benefit the environment. Researchers test flights with the same aircraft, comparing the use of 100% SAF-powered flights to those using conventional fuel. The team also measures contrail formation from each fuel, overall working to determine whether SAF use mitigates the formation of contrails.

Sustainable aviation fuel, a biofuel made from feedstocks or waste resources, is able to reduce emissions by 80% when compared to conventional jet fuels. A number of airlines have committed to using SAF to decrease their emissions, and it is already used in some aircraft today.

Beyond its known environmental benefits, researchers are currently exploring whether SAF may also reduce the environmental impact of contrails. Contrails are condensation trails produced by aircraft engine exhaust, and they are known for their warming effects on the environment. Some research indicates that alternative jet fuels may reduce this impact, but the present research project is working to quantify and further explore the scope of SAF’s benefits.

Additional Efforts to Address Aviation, Contrail Environmental Impact

Aviation is considered a hard-to-abate sector and is currently responsible for about 2% of global emissions, so the industry has seen a number of innovations meant to mitigate this impact.

Google recently unveiled an artificial intelligence-driven tool used to reduce contrails in a research study. By conducting test flights based on AI-derived models meant to avoid certain altitudes, pilots were able to reduce contrails by 54%. The study also found contrails could be avoided at scale with minimal additional fuel quantities, making it a cost-effective solution to reduce warming.

Investment in SAF has also seen growth in recent years, including expansion of oilseed production needed in the alternative fuel’s development. The first large-scale SAF Hub in the U.S., the Minnesota Sustainable Aviation Fuel Hub, is to be operational as early as 2025 as well, aiming to scale SAF production in the country.

With SAF still a comparatively new innovation, additional efforts are reportedly needed for its widespread commercial use. Based on findings from NASA’s research partnership, SAF may be found to have additional environmental benefits for airlines looking to implement its use in the years to come.

Results from the study are expected to be published publicly within a year.

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