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By David Rooney on

Biofuel for jets?

David Rooney, Transport Curator, explores the possibility of biofuels for jets.

Back in January, a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 airliner successfully tested a camelina-based biofuel, prompting hopes that a non-petroleum-based jet fuel might one day power the world’s airline fleets (and maybe cars and trucks too).

At the Science Museum we’ve been tracking jet engine technology since it was first developed, back before the Second World War. Of particular note in our displays is the Gloster-Whittle E.28/39, Britain’s first successful jet aircraft.

Gloster-Whittle E.28/39 jet aeroplane, 1941 (credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

That’s in the Flight gallery, and you can find out more about Frank Whittle and the invention of the jet in our curator Andrew Nahum’s book.

In ‘Making the Modern World’, downstairs, is a more domestic-looking vehicle. It’s a 1950 Rover motor car, but the registration plate gives away the secret under the hood (or rather in the boot).

It’s a car powered by a jet engine! Jets are also known as gas turbines, and you can find out more about how they work here, far better than I can explain.

The Rover jet car wasn’t much of a success, really, as gas turbines are better going at a pretty constant speed, whereas cars need to speed up and slow down a lot. There was a marked accelerator lag in the Rover, for instance — put your foot down and it wouldn’t start moving for a little while. Not ideal at the traffic lights. And it was very thirsty, so while it was a useful experiment, it was back to the internal combustion engine for cars.

Hidden amongst our older displays is this monster, by Metropolitan-Vickers, from the 1940s, in the Marine Engineering gallery.

It’s the first jet engine (gas turbine) ever used to power a ship – MGB 2009 (that’s Motor Gun Boat). Nowadays, many warships have gas turbines to drive the propellors. For instance, HMS Illustrious, a Royal Navy aircraft carrier, uses four Concorde engines. I found myself standing next to the turbine air-intake vents on Illustrious‘s deck a few weeks ago (I wangled a visit on board as part of the Royal Navy’s ‘Fly 100’ aviation celebrations) and boy, was it noisy!