Fall 2008 Issue - Special Report
Boeing Greens Up
Posted: November, 2008
Pond Scum Might Be Fuel Of The Future
by: Barbara Clements
Most of us might consider the green scum that covers an inlet or lake a summertime headache. But for companies that comprise the Seattle-based Algal Biomass Organization, it’s a viable replacement for petroleum-based products and to prove the point, they’ll almost gleefully trot out the oil-per-acre these tiny critters can produce compared to better known biofuel alternatives.
Soy can produce 60 gallons of oil per acre, noted John Williams, the organization’s spokesman. Canola? About 120 gallons. But, algae can produce 3,500 gallons per acre and some think it might go as high as 10,000 gallons.
To view algae’s production potential another way, you would need to plant 64 percent of the U.S. land mass in soy plants to produce the 70 billion gallons of diesel fuel that the nation presently consumes. But you could get the same amount from algae with a growing area one quarter the size of Arizona. Not that anyone is talking about filling up the Grand Canyon.
It’s just that algae advocates are highly enthused.
“It’s just full of oil, and it grows really fast,” Williams said of the tiny water-loving plant. “Because it’s a plant, it will digest carbon dioxide, so of course you’d want to build it next to a carbon emissions plant.”
The Boeing Company is one of the sponsors of the Algal Biomass Organization, and its commitment to algae research is just one way the homegrown giant is looking to reduce its carbon shadow. By air and by land, Boeing is committed to going green and company suggestion inboxes have been bulging with new ideas.
Over the next five years, the company wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emission intensity and hazardous waste by 25%, and boost recycling rates and energy efficiency by 25%.
These goals come on top of existing energy efficiency efforts that have saved an estimated $120 million since 1999. Along the way, ISO 14001 certification was achieved for production plants in Everett, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Exmouth, Australia. The company goal is for all 15 of its major manufacturing sites to reach certification by the end of 2008.
While such mandates come from the top, support for them comes from the ground up, according to Mary Armstrong, vice president for Environment, Health and Safety, a new division formed in 2007. “I don’t care whether it’s an employee around Puget Sound or an Aussie, this all really resonates with them,” Armstrong said.
The many local contributors to the effort include Randy Jahren and Ronald Wu, two engineers at Boeing’s material and process technology division located near Boeing Field. They spent two years testing a dozen mixtures to develop a better conversion coat for painting airplanes. Conversion coats are made from a layer of clear liquid that helps primer and paint stick better to aluminum body parts and rivets.
Conversion coating material used to include chromium and other heavy metals. It took two years to do it, but Jahren and Wu eliminated those to create a new greener substance called “Boegel.”
Boegel has now been applied to 150 airplanes. It requires less water to apply than the old conversion coat, it reduces worker exposure to heavy metals, it eliminates chromates from leeching into the environment and it saves the headache of purifying the water that’s used to rinse down airplanes.
On top of all that, it also reduces “rivet rash:” a patchy condition that developes when paint flakes off the rivets holding the aluminum skin to the frame.
Jahren and Wu are proud of what they accomplished.
Jahren likes to hike in the Olympic Mountains and enjoys viewpoints that make him feel like he’s contributing to a cleaner world. “One of the things I like to do is look up and see air that’s so clean and nice,” he said. “Then you look at a city and the uglier layer of air. You want to minimize that and it’s great to be able to help with that.”
Wu is a long distance runner who prizes clean air. “With the environment, you only get one shot at it, and you have to be careful about protecting it,” he said.
As the leader for the Boeing enterprise and energy management team, Jeff Nunn is responsible for finding new ways to heat or cool Boeing buildings, and making sure recycling efforts are maximized. He also makes sure fleets are updated to include hybrids and vehicles that use green fuels whenever possible.
A big part of his job is doing energy assessments and encouraging employees to survey their own working environments for savings. Are lights left on after hours? Does that computer really need to be turned on all night? Are the most energy efficient lights and appliances being used?
Blogs and wikis have been set up around the company so employees can share ideas.
“Employees are really passionate about being involved in all this,” he said.
But, these internal efforts may someday pale beside the environmental and efficiency wonders that will be scored across the skies by finding a good jet fuel alternative to kerosene. Aircraft emissions account for about two percent of world carbon emissions and the environmental impacts were already placing major pressure on airlines and manufacturers before the run-up in fuel prices threatened to destabilize the whole aviation industry.
The backlog of orders for the 787 Dreamliner, an airplane that will use 20 percent less fuel for comparable missions than today’s similarly sized airplanes, demonstrates the need for more fuel efficient airplane technology, but the stakes have grown even higher for finding a more affordable, more reliable fuel source and that’s sharpened the focus on humble algae.
If burned as jet fuel, algae will still cause greenhouse emissions, but it could prove to be a game-changer if it proves to be a reliable, cost-effective, commercially cultivatable homegrown substitute for oil-based jet fuel and all the added environmental and financial complications of assuring continued oil supplies. Unlike oil found beneath the ground, algae exists everywhere around the globe, it can be grown in vast quantities in almost any water environment, and it produces oil in stupendous abundance.
Major sticking points remain, but algae research is flying down a very fast track. Investors pumped almost $85 million into companies researching algae-based fuel this year, compared to just $29 million in all of 2007, according to Cleantech Group, an industry research firm.
Experts believe the first use will come in a mix of algae oil and jet or diesel fuel. Williams, of the Algal Biomass Organization, figures it will be about three to five years before companies produce algae oil on a commercial scale. But, it will happen, he said.
“Smart people are working very hard, tweeking the technology. We don’t have the luxury of time on this.”