New aviation fuels could reduce contrail climate threat

Study shows blend of more eco-friendly fuels lowers the impact of vapour trails left by modern jets

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 12:  Two commercial airliners appear to fly close together as the pass over London on March 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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A more eco-friendly blend of aviation fuels could help reduce the impact of air travel on climate warming by producing less of a vapour trail, according to a new study.

The findings suggest that contrails from aircraft using a sustainable blend of fuels could contain 50 to 70 per cent less soot and ice particles compared with conventional fuels, according to a paper published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

Contrails – a combination of ice crystals and soot - contribute to global warming by trapping infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface in the atmosphere. This form of global warming is thought to be more harmful than an aircraft’s emissions.

Climate experts have warned of a significant increase in contrail-linked effects by 2050 because of a likely increase in air traffic.

Experts have considered other measures including changing the cruising altitudes of planes and altering routes to avoid weather that is more likely to create contrails. But those measure could lead to more fuel being used and longer flights.

Researchers from Germany and the US examined whether the make-up of aviation fuels could reduce the climate-warming qualities of contrails.

They compared soot and ice crystals in the contrails behind an Airbus A320 using five different products, from standard jet fuel to ones using more synthetic or biofuels that produce fewer of the sooty particles that cause the contrails.

The traditional fuels contained "aromatic compounds" that led to more soot. The researchers found that when aircraft burnt the sustainable fuels, they led to fewer but larger ice crystals that warmed the atmosphere less.

“Meaningful reductions in aviation’s climate impact could therefore be obtained from the widespread adaptation of low aromatic fuels, and from regulations to lower the maximum aromatic fuel content,” the study found.