Deep Fried Flying

It has been a while since Anthony Watts posted the following remark on his blog:

I’ve never much thought there was much usefulness to waste vegetable oil used for automobile fuel, as there is a much more finite amount of waste frying oil available compared to petroleum. Ditto for chicken fat powered aviation. Would you want to fly on a plane that is chicken fat powered? Personally, it seems clucking ridiculous.

I just wish NASA would stick to space exploration.

Watts is complaining about an article posted by NASA where they explain an experiment they did with alternative fuels. And for this experiment they used chicken fat and beef tallow as the source for the fuel:

“Renewable” means that the fuel source isn’t some form of fossil fuel. The source could be algae, a plant such as jatropha, or even rendered animal fat. In late March and early April 2011, a team at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California tested renewable biofuel made from chicken and beef tallow in one of the four engines of a DC-8 airplane.

The airplane remained on the ground during the test, known as the Alternative Aviation Fuels Experiment, or AAFEX, while aeronautics researchers measured the fuel’s performance in the engines and examined the engine exhaust for chemicals and contamination that could contribute to air pollution. It was the first test ever to measure biofuel emissions for nitrogen oxides, commonly known as NOx, and tiny particles of soot or unburned hydrocarbon – both of which can degrade air quality in communities with airports. NOx contributes to smog and particulate matter contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.

“The test results seem to support the idea that biofuels for jet engines are indeed cleaner-burning, and release fewer pollutants into the air. That benefits us all,” said Ruben Del Rosario of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Del Rosario manages NASA’s Subsonic Fixed Wing Project, which sponsored the experiment through the agency’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program.

So the remark of Watts is already slightly off as this was just a test fuel. It isn’t proposed, or tested as, the replacement fuel for the current fossil based ones. They are just testing if biofuels are cleaner burning, which this test confirmed.

But his remark that he wishes that “NASA would stick to space exploration” is the one that annoyed me the most. As it shows a severe lack in his knowledge of the history of NASA and the work they do. Just the basic fact that NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration should have tipped him off that they do a lot more than just space research.

Aeronautical tests go back to the day NASA was still NACA. And if you open the wikipedia page on the X-planes, and just pick the planes that are obviously aircraft testbeds, you already have an extensive list (please note that some deliver data that can also be used for space projects):

Name Manufacturer
Image Maiden flight Purpose and Notes
X-1 Bell Aircraft
January 19, 1946 High-speed and high-altitude testing.
First aircraft to break the sound barrier.
Proved aerodynamic viability of thin wing sections.
Douglas Aircraft
October 27, 1952 Titanium alloy construction; low aspect ratio wings.
Planned to test long-duration high-speed flight.
Incapable of reaching design speed, but Provided insights into inertia coupling.
December 15, 1948 Evaluated handling characteristics of tailless aircraft in the transonic speed region.
X-5 Bell Aircraft
June 20, 1951 First aircraft to fly with variable geometry wings.
X-14 Bell Aircraft
February 19, 1957 VTOL testbed.
Examined the vectored thrust configuration for VTOL flight.
X-15 North American Aviation
June 8, 1959 Hypersonic (Mach 6), high-altitude (350,000 feet (110,000 m)) testing.
First manned hypersonic aircraft; capable of suborbital spaceflight.
X-29 Grumman
1984 Forward-swept wing testbed.
X-36 McDonnell Douglas/Boeing
May 17, 1997 28% scale tailless fighter testbed.
June 2, 2001 Scramjet hypersonic testbed.
Lockheed Martin
Cancelled F-22-based Multi-Axis No-Tail Aircraft thrust vectoring testbed.
X-54 Gulfstream Aerospace
Future Supersonic transport testbed.

And these are just the X-planes, NASA does a lot more aeronautical research than you would expect. It’s not something that gets a lot of headlines, but it has always been part of their research.

I’m no longer surprised by this kind of nonsense from Watts. He just shows time and time again that he makes mistakes and shows a misplaced sense of scepticism.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.