NZ airline flies jetliner partly run on veggie oil

30.12.2008   (Washington   Post)

By RAY LILLEY     The Associated Press
A passenger jet powered in part by vegetable oil successfully completed a two-hour
flight Tuesday to test a biofuel that could lower airplane emissions and cut costs,
Air New Zealand said.

One engine of a Boeing 747-400 airplane was powered by a 50-50 blend of oil from
jatropha plants and standard A1 jet fuel.

This year has seen an unprecedented push for alternative fuels by airlines, which
were slammed by skyrocketing oil prices earlier in 2008 and are now bracing for
a falloff in air travel in the face of a global economic slowdown.

While Air New Zealand couldn’t say whether the blend would be cheaper than standard
jet fuel since jatropha is not yet produced on a commercial scale, the company
expects the blend to be “cost competitive,” according to company spokeswoman Tracy

Biofuels were once regarded as impractical for aviation because most freeze at
the low temperatures encountered at cruising altitudes. But tests show jatropha,
whose seeds yield an oil already used to produce fuels like biodiesel, has an
even lower freezing point than jet fuel.

Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe called the flight “a milestone for the
airline and commercial aviation.”

“Today we stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development and an
important moment in aviation history,” he said shortly after the flight. The company’s
goal is to become the world’s most environmentally sustainable airline.

The flight was the first to use jatropha as part of a biofuel mix.

In February, Boeing and Virgin Atlantic carried out a similar test flight that
included a biofuel mixture of palm and coconut oil  – but was dismissed as a publicity
stunt by environmentalists who said the fuel could not be produced in the quantities
needed for commercial aviation use.

Biofuels emit as much carbon as kerosene-based jet fuel, but jatropha  – a Mexican
plant that grows in warm climates – absorbs about half the carbon that jatropha-based
fuels release.   Air New Zealand’s proposed blend, for example, would mean a one-quarter
reduction in the carbon footprint of standard jet fuel.

Many biofuels  –  like ethanol which is produced from corn  –  have been blamed
for raising the price of food by diverting it from kitchen tables to engines.  
While the link between biofuels and grain prices is debatable, Mills said that
jatophra plants would not compete with food or other commercial crops since it
can grow on land that would make poor farmland and needs little water.

“Ethanol is a first generation biofuel; jatophra a second generation biofuel
that doesn’t compete for land with food production,” Mills said.

The test flight out of Auckland International Airport included a full-power takeoff
and cruising to 35,000 feet (10,600 meters), where the crew manually set all four
engine controls to check for identical performance readings among the biofuel-powered
engine and those using jet fuel.  Pilots also switched off the fuel pump for the
biofuel engine at 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) “to test the lubricity of the fuel,”
ensuring its friction in the pipe did not slow its flow to the engine.

Capt. David Morgan, the airline’s chief pilot who was on board the airplane,
said results from the flight tests will provide the company and its partners with
invaluable data to help jatropha become a certified aviation fuel.

The checks were “designed to test the biofuel to the fullest extent,” Morgan

While the airline heralded the flight as successful, Air New Zealand Group Manager
Ed Sims cautioned that it will be at least 2013 before the company can ensure
easy access to the large quantities of jatropha it would need to use the biofuel
on all of its flights.

“Clearly we are a long, long way from being able to source commercially quantifiable
amounts of the fuel and then be able to move that amount of fuel around the world
to be able to power the world’s airlines is still some years off,” Sims told New
Zealand’s National Radio.


The company bought the seeds from plantations in East Africa and India that total
309,000 acres (125,000 hectares).

The company hopes that by 2013, 10% of its flights will be powered, at least
in part, by biofuels, Mills said.     Most of those using the blend would be short
haul domestic services.

The flight was a joint venture by Air New Zealand, airplane maker Boeing, engine
maker Rolls Royce and biofuel specialist, UOP Llc, a unit of Honeywell International.

The flight, initially scheduled for earlier this month, was postponed after an
Air New Zealand A320 Airbus crashed off Perpignan on the south coast of France on Nov. 27, killing all seven on board.

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The month from 30 December to 30 January will see the aviation industry conduct
three different flight trials where traditional jet fuel will be replaced with
. Biofuels are fuels made from plants or algae and they need plenty of CO2 to
grow, thus making it possible for the aviation industry to achieve carbon neutrality
in the future. All three flights will mark the first time a particular type of
biofuel has been used, sourced from jatropha, algae and camelina.

The first trial will involve an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 that will be using a 50% jatropha mix on one of its Rolls-Royce engines on 30 December. This will be the first flight using jatropha, a bush that grows strongly in
arid areas unsuitable for food crops.

The second flight takes place on 7 January when a CFM engine on a Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 will be powered by a mix of algae and jatropha. This will be the first flight using algae, which can be grown in salt water,
deserts and other inhospitable places. Algae is an excellent carbon sequestrator,
soaking up carbon dioxide.   An area of unused land or water the size of Belgium
could provide enough fuel to power the entire fleet according to Boeing.

The flight on 30 January will see Japan Airlines use camelina, jatropha and algae on one Pratt & Whitney engine on a Boeing 747-300. This will be the first time that camelina is used on a flight.   Camelina is
a high-energy crop that can be grown in dry areas, poor soil and high altitudes.