When Fuel is the Price of Champagne

“What do you do when fuel is the price of champagne?” As a writer who focuses much on issues of Peak Oil, I believe that is an interesting way to ask the question. The last time I looked at the price of decent champagne (not even the high-end stuff), it was selling for the likes of $25 per bottle and up, or the equivalent of $125 per gallon. Ouch! So imagine a bottle of champagne with a fuel hose and nozzle running out of it. Try to envision some very pricey stuff bubbling out of the Dom Perignon-style bottle and into the fuel tank.

Oh, wait a minute. You do not have to imagine it. Just open up a recent copy of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, published by McGraw-Hill. There, in the center pages of the most widely read trade magazine in the high-end segment of the aviation industry, was a three-page advertisement that asks exactly this question and presents exactly this image on the first page. In the ad, Page 1, a fuel hose is running out of a champagne bottle. The sponsor of the ad was none other than one of the most famous corporate names in the world, Boeing. Welcome to the future of aviation.

Orville, Wilbur, and Power Density

Since the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright, heavier-than-air flight has been powered by liquid fuels, almost always based on one or another petroleum product. (Lacking much in the way of oil, however, the Germans utilized coal to make aviation fuel during World War II. They lost the war, by the way.) Oil-based fuels are the only widely available substances with the inherent power density sufficient to turn a shaft such as to make something fly. Once rotating, the shaft can be made to spin a propeller, turn a fan, or otherwise to act in a manner that will harness the governing aerodynamic forces and principles behind flight. Let me digress on this topic.

Power density is a measurement of power divided by volume. The power density offered by liquid and solid fuels is, generally, up to two orders of magnitude larger (i.e., hundreds of times larger) than even the best batteries available on the market today. This is why your gasoline- or diesel-powered car may have an engine with a rated output of say, “200 horsepower.” Absent the power density of gasoline or diesel fuel as it burns within the engine, you would be feeding a lot of grain and hay to the 200 ponies out in your backyard if you wanted the equivalent of that much power in your life. 

And just to be clear, all of that horsepower energy is derived from the rock oil that was stored in the ground over many tens and hundreds of millions of years. No geologic time scales, no oil. No oil, no power density.

Increases in power density have had immense consequences for humanity over the past three centuries. Increasing power density was, in truth, the key element of the Industrial Revolution. For example, the Industrial Revolution commenced in the mid-1700s with the development of steam engines that burned wood or coal. According to a calculation made by a team of engineers at Yale University, this first steam engine had a power density on the order of 0.005 W/g (Watts/gram). 

The history of industrial development has been the story of how these first engines were continuously improved and over time hooked up to other innovative uses such as moving steamboats and locomotives and powering factories and electrical generators. And powering drilling rigs, I suppose I should add. Thus, power from fossil fuels begat more fossil fuels, and mankind’s use of these substances begat even more power. You could say that, at least figuratively, absent Col. Drake and his oil well and Mr. Rockefeller and his “standardized” approach to refining petroleum, Orville and Wilbur Wright would have remained in the bicycle business.

Between about 1890-1960, the development of steam turbines and the now-ubiquitous diesel and spark-ignition engines offered users power densities in the range 0.05-1.0 W/g (per the Yale figures). These machines also ushered in the transportation revolution of the 20th century, to include the Wright Flyer, which used a primitive gasoline engine, and the concomitant rising demand for petroleum that has been the hallmark of the past century. 

With these terrestrial applications, aviation pioneers worked to develop improved piston engines, as well as the later-arriving axial turbojet and turbofan engines that have come to be used for powered flight. These kinds of aircraft engines today offer power densities on the order of 10 W/g, or 10 times the power density of even the best “ground” engine. With that kind of power density turning a propeller or rotor blade, or hurling “thrust” out of a tailpipe, or moving “bypass” air to the rear of the engine nacelle, it is no wonder airplanes can fly. (And for my money, it is still a wonder that helicopters fly. But they do — another discussion for another time.)

“If man were meant to fly,” goes the old saying, “he would have wings.” Perhaps this is so. I leave it to the philosophers to debate. But that statement would present very much a moot issue without the wide availability of liquid fuel based on petroleum. 

The Smell of Flying; The Rules of Naval Aviation

For many decades, flying was all about aviation gasoline, and it still is in the world of virtually all piston-powered aircraft engines. From the largest airports in the world to tiny little airstrips out in the middle of nowhere, the true smell of flying is the aroma of avgas. Along these lines, and very early in my own Navy flight training, I learned the first rule of naval aviation: “Don’t run out of gas.” (“What are the other rules of naval aviation?” you ask. OK, I will let you in on the secret. “Take care of your wingman” and “Always sound good when you talk on the radio.” But let’s get back to business.)

Since the dawn of the jet age, in the mid-1940s, the principal fuel for axial turboprop, turbojet, and turbofan engines has been kerosene or some derivative of the substance. Again, the use of kerosene-based jet fuel is ubiquitous, from the world’s largest airports to the smallest and from the flight decks of aircraft carriers to the helicopter decks of offshore drilling rigs. If you insist on simultaneously breathing air and flying in it, you will have to take a few whiffs of jet fuel. Don’t complain. Just learn to love it.

According to a recent report published by a research engineer who works for Shell Oil Co. in the field of aviation fuels, there is no realistic expectation that any new or replacement fuel will substitute for kerosene in the foreseeable future. Using liquid hydrogen to power the world’s aviation fleet is “pure fantasy,” said the man from Shell, for at least another 50 years. And forget any notion that biological fuels such as ethanol will come to the rescue. Unlike the case with automobiles, ethanol is a poor substitute for aviation fuel, due to ethanol’s lower power density. Ethanol just lacks that “right stuff,” although, in fairness, I should note that some companies that manufacture ethanol and build ethanol plants are promoting it as a substitute for aviation gasoline.

Thus, good old kerosene and its derivatives remain as the world’s aviation fuel, not just of choice, but of necessity, for the indefinite future. And no less an authority on aviation than Boeing asserts that new planes being built today will have a service life of up to 60 years. So Peak Oil or no, if mankind is going to fly, whether for civil, military, or scientific applications, it appears that the world is locked into fossil-fuel based technology for the long term. 

This is not to say that the jet fuel of the future will not be “manufactured” from tar sand or oil shale, or from some other type of carbon-conversion process. But it does imply strongly that jet fuel of the future will still be based on some sort of fossilized carbon that comes from the ground. But this is another discussion for another article in Whiskey & Gunpowder .

You Can Always Walk or Swim

Depending upon how you view the statistics, between 6-8% of the world’s daily extraction and use of petroleum goes for aviation-related uses. This, of course, makes for a lot of refined oil product being burned and going out the tailpipes of the world’s aviation fleet. But then again, most of what goes out of the tailpipes actually moves airplanes through the sky. Aircraft operators are notoriously efficient, to the point of being ruthless, in their approach to both in-flight fuel management and tracking the costs of fuel. It goes back to that “don’t run out of gas” rule. 

Another way of viewing it is that the use of fuel for aviation purposes is comparable to the amount of oil that is burned up and wasted in, say, automobiles idling in traffic jams in and around large cities. The world could run its entire aviation fleet, and then some, with what is lost to heat and greenhouse gases every day just from inefficient commuting between leafy suburbs and urban cores. So when you are commuting to work, think about taking an electric streetcar. (What? Your community does not have electric streetcars? Well, maybe not yet.) And if you want to fly from New York to London or Beijing, you should take a Boeing (or a bus — an Airbus).

If you value one of the key hallmarks of modernity, do not complain about refining oil into high-octane gasolines, or into Jet-A, JP-4, or (my personal favorite) JP-5. If you appreciate the ability to move from here to there in this world over great distance and at high elevation and speed, then you had better not criticize using rock oil as a source from which to refine the fuel that makes it all possible. Otherwise, if you need to travel to someplace far, far away, you can always walk or swim.

Sip It; Efficiency Is the Big Idea

Let’s get back to that Boeing advertisement in Aviation Week magazine. Open it up to the second and third pages and you will see a handsome graphic of a familiar-looking, soaring, blue and white aircraft, described as “The New 747-8 Intercontinental.” It is Boeing’s latest version of the venerable workhorse, the four-engine B-747 jumbo jet that first flew in 1968. So here, in the centerfold section of one of the most important trade publications in the worldwide aviation industry, Boeing is marketing one of its newest and most important products with a direct appeal to a virtue no less than fuel-efficiency.

The text of the Boeing ad is remarkable, considering that it promotes the B-474-8, which is one of the largest aircraft in the world. (It is also Boeing’s alternative to the even larger, and currently trouble-plagued, Airbus A380.) “Sip it,” Boeing states right up front. “Efficiency is the big idea.” Here is the rest of the text:

“The new 747-8 Intercontinental is the perfect hedge against rapidly rising fuel prices. Redesigned with the most fuel-efficient commercial airplane engines in the world, the new 747-8 uses 15% less fuel per passenger mile. That’s nearly 1,500,000 gallons a year. All that in a cleaner, quieter, more comfortable 747. Now that’s a big idea.” 

A savings of 15% of fuel burn per passenger mile is nothing short of astonishing in the world of aviation, particularly in an upgrade of an older airframe design. Also according to Boeing, the freighter-version of the B-747-8 will use 17% less fuel per ton-mile. Boeing claims that its new aircraft design is one of the most fuel-efficient modes of transportation in the world, more efficient than cars, or even trains in some applications (although I cannot envision hauling bulk products like coal in a B-747-8).

Have You Driven a Boeing Lately?

“Sip it?” With these two words, Boeing is directly confronting the idea that flying must somehow be an “inefficient” use of petroleum-derived fuel. Far from it, according to Boeing. In its technical marketing literature, the plane maker states that its newer types of airplanes, such as the 777 and 787, and its advanced versions of older models are twice as fuel-efficient as airplanes that were built 30 years ago. (The B-787 Dreamliner is such a remarkable, truly revolutionary aircraft that it merits its own article in Whiskey & Gunpowder . Stay tuned.) Compared with aircraft constructed in the 1950s, the improvement in aircraft fuel-efficiency is even more dramatic. In the past 50 years, for example, airplane fuel use per passenger-mile has been reduced by 70%.

Boeing’s engineers have calculated that, in terms of fuel burn per passenger mile, a modern B-747 filled to 75% passenger capacity is more fuel-efficient than what passes for most of so-called “transportation” in this world: a conventional automobile with a driver and perhaps one passenger rolling on rubber tires down a road. 

Boeing’s marketing literature states, in fact, that only when the average car is carrying a driver and three or more passengers (i.e., four people in the same car) is it as fuel-efficient as a large modern airliner flying 75% full. This may seem counterintuitive when you think of the size, weight, and fuel load of an airliner. But then we are talking about large numbers of people flying great distances, and not just one or two people in a standard-sized car running down to the shopping mall or commuting to work. The bottom-line engineering calculations appear to demonstrate that if you want good gas mileage, you should drive a Boeing. This is especially the case if you want to go on a long trip, such as to the other side of the continent, if not the world.

The Future of the Company

At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., I had occasion to meet Kenneth Deffeyes, professor of geology at Princeton University. Professor Deffeyes is the author of the highly regarded, very readable, and widely circulated books Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (2001); and Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert’s Peak (2005). 

Professor Deffeyes told an interesting story about his first book, Hubbert’s Peak . When the book was released by the publisher, he sent a copy to a family acquaintance who works as a senior executive for Boeing. On the front page, professor Deffeyes inscribed a friendly note along the lines of “I hope you read the book.” Professor Deffeyes also wrote, “This is the future of your company.” About two years later, Boeing announced the launch of its newest commercial aircraft product, the B-787 Dreamliner. One of the key features of the 787 is its extreme emphasis on fuel-efficiency. 

Professor Deffeyes, in relating the story of sending the book, said, “I do not want to blow my own horn too loud, but I like to think that I got through to the top managers at Boeing.” One way or another, professor Deffeyes or no, someone has gotten through to the top managers at Boeing about the long-term prospects for the price of fuel. Apparently, Boeing has read the book. Boeing gets it. Pass the champagne.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
July 11, 2006

The Daily Reckoning