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DOT proposes contest to 'green' jet fuel industry

The U.S. Department of Transportation says it will finance the development of a new X Prize competition to develop renewable fuels and technologies for the aviation industry.

In the race to curb global warming, the aviation industry lags behind as one of the largest polluters. But the U.S. government wants to help rectify that problem by calling on technology experts for green-air solutions.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation said that it will finance a new competition designed to spur innovation in renewable fuels and technologies for the aviation industry. To this end, the DOT, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, has granted $500,000 to the nonprofit X Prize Foundation to form a contest that will call on private industry to develop alternative jet fuels or technologies. The coming aviation X Prize could carry a prize purse of $10 million or more for the winner--contest money to be provided by a yet-to-be-determined private sponsor.

"It will be a competition that everyone wins, because a breakthrough in alternative jet fuels is a potential game-changer that could bring lower airline fuel costs, greater U.S. energy independence, and cleaner air," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said in a statement. Peters announced the grant Thursday at the American Association of Airport Executives summit in Washington D.C.

The creation of an aviation prize is part of the FAA's so-called Next Generation air traffic modernization program, or "NextGen." The goal of the FAA's program is to double the capacity of the U.S. aviation traffic system by 2025, but by maintaining the growth in a carbon-neutral fashion. The FAA believes that alternative aviation fuels or so-called coupling technologies--those that might mitigate air pollutants, for example--may be able to offset the greenhouse gas emissions expected from increased air traffic.

The grant is also among the first given from the government to the X Prize Foundation to form an industry X Prize. The Foundation has been in talks with the DOT and FAA about a potential aviation contest for alternative fuels since the mid-90s, when the nonprofit first announced its Ansari X Prize, a competition to foster private suborbital space flight which was won in 2004. In recent months, the DOT issued a request for proposal to the industry to run a similar aviation contest for alternative fuels, and it ultimately chose the X Prize Foundation.

The nonprofit plans to consult with industry experts over the next 14 months to develop its aviation prize, including setting rules that will govern the competition. After that time, it expects to launch the competition by 2011, with the goal for it to be completed by 2016. Once announced, it would be the X Prize Foundation's fifth official X Prize competition, including the current $10 million Archon X Prize for Genomics, the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, and the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize for energy-efficient vehicles.

For that prize, the Department of Energy has granted $3.5 million to the X Prize Foundation to educate young people about energy-efficient autos.

"With all the discussion about global warming, the increasing cost of oil, and the increasing congestion everyone's feeling at the airport, we need to do something dramatic about it and we think it's the contest model," said Jason Morgan, senior director of prize development at the X Prize Foundation.