As the purple helicopter lifted off the ground at the Bell Textron Inc.’s Fort Worth headquarters on Feb. 21, observers burst into applause.
The liftoff of the helicopter is a milestone for the company — the first flight with 100% sustainable aviation fuel, which leaves less of a carbon footprint, company officials say.
The fuel blend, manufactured by Neste and Virent Inc., doesn’t require petroleum like other sustainable aviation fuels, Bell officials say. Virent’s product contains a component made of plant sugars, removing the need to blend with petroleum. Sustainable aviation fuel contains products such as used cooking oil and “bio-based” substances like agricultural waste.
The flight is Bell’s latest attempt to reduce its environmental impact. The company announced a partnership with engine company Safran Helicopter Engines in March 2022 to analyze the technical performance of the fuel. Bell also collaborated with sustainable fuel company Neste, GKN Aerospace and Virent Inc. to make the company’s commercial helicopter, the Bell 505, lift off the ground with the alternative fuel.
The aviation industry is racing to find ways to leave less of a carbon footprint. United Airlines, Air Canada, Boeing GE Aerospace and JP Morgan Chase recently announced a $100 million fund for investing in sustainable aviation fuel. The effort is an acknowledgment of the industry’s contribution to carbon emissions, which accounted for 2% of all global carbon emissions in 2021, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
Linda Deslatte, Bell’s president of commercial programs, echoed the industry’s commitment to cleaner energy. Bell wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2025.
“It’s our responsibility, now more than ever, to keep innovating, keep exploring and keep pushing for better solutions for our customers, our products and for our planet,” Deslatte said.
Training helicopters and demonstration aircrafts currently use sustainable fuel, company officials say.
The test is a big step forward as the company tries to have a more sustainable portfolio of aircraft, including electric, Eric Sinusas, director of commercial development programs at Bell, said.
“Obviously, we had a great successful first flight,” Sinusas said. “So that’s a great milestone. But before we can make that … for public use, we’re going to need to do some more tests.”
The timeline for when they will be able to sell the helicopter with entirely sustainable fuel is uncertain, but Sinusas said it could take years.
Testing is required because the engines were not designed to take sustainable engine fuel, said Thierry Derrien, president and CEO of Safran Helicopter Engines USA. Tests ensure the engines can perform with 100% sustainable aviation fuel without affecting the performance or reliability of the life of the engine, he said.
In 2019, sustainable aviation fuels made up 0.1% of all jet fuel used worldwide, according to a World Economic Forum report. Derrien acknowledged sustainable fuels are not the only path to a more clean energy future for the industry.
“We’re looking at the increased efficiency of the machines and other hybrid electrical technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of ignition, but (sustainable aviation fuel) is a certain and available solution,” Derrien said.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
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