Your lawn clippings could be turned into (greener) biofuels to power jet planes

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A new NASA study has confirmed that when jet engines use biofuels, they emit fewer particle emissions in their exhaust trails. So yes, biofuels are, in fact, better for the environment than their fossil fuel alternatives. And now, your lawn clippings could be used to make that biofuel. That’s right — we could soon be driving and flying on something like grassoline.

“Using biofuels to help power jet engines reduces particle emissions in their exhaust by as much as 50 to 70 percent, in a new study conclusion that bodes well for airline economics and Earth’s environment,” NASA wrote in a press release in mid-March.

NASA’s study involved test flights in 2013 and 2014, in which scientists collected data on engine performance, emissions, and aircraft-generated contrails at altitudes frequented by commercial planes. Contrails are those white plumes you often see in the air left in a plane’s wake — they are, in fact, the result of hot aircraft engine exhaust mixing with the cold air at that altitude.

As it turns out, though, those contrails “create long-lasting, and sometimes extensive, clouds that would not normally form in the atmosphere, and are believed to be a factor in influencing Earth’s environment,” according to NASA. And a major driver of those contrails is soot emissions, which often come from fossil fuels.

” … The observed particle reductions we’ve measured during [this study] should directly translate into reduced ice crystal concentrations in contrails, which in turn should help minimize their impact on Earth’s environment,” said Bruce Anderson, ACCESS project scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Planes that participated in the study used a 50-50 blend of traditional aviation fuel and a renewable alternative biofuel. “This was the first time we have quantified the amount of soot particles emitted by jet engines while burning a 50-50 blend of biofuel in flight,” said Rich Moore, lead author of the Nature report.

And now, there’s better news still, as researchers at Ghent University has figured out how to make biofuel much more quickly than before, using grass. “Until now, grass has mainly served as feed for animals. We can get more out of grass: due to its vast abundance, it is an attractive source to produce organics such as aviation fuel,” scientist Way Cern Khor told Ghent University press. In essence, scientists first treated grass with a compound that made it far easier for bacteria to break down and digest, a key first step in creating biofuel.

While the process is not quite at the stage that will allow us to turn all our lawn clippings into airplane fuel, researchers say that it’s already showing promising signs of wider implementation.

So get excited, friends. You may soon be able to fly guilt-free. At least, as far as the environment’s concerned.

Article originally published in March 2017. Edited on 4-3-2017: Added news of new technique that could turn grass into the biofuels needed for jet engines.