Will biofuels power tomorrow’s planes?

24.2.2008   (BBC)

 On Sunday, a Virgin Airlines Boeing 747 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport
en route to Amsterdam. This short flight may prove to be a giant leap forward
for the aviation industry.

The aircraft did not carry passengers – but it was the first commercial aircraft
to fly partly under the power of biofuels.

One of the aircraft’s four engines ran on fuel comprising a 20% biofuel mix of
coconut and babassu oil and 80% of the normal Jet A aviation fuel.

Biofuels – principally ethanol and diesel made from plants – are one of the few
viable options for replacing the liquid fuels derived from petroleum used in transport,
the source of about one quarter of the human race’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The airline industry is being increasingly criticised for its perceived part
in global warming, as more and more people take advantage of cheap tickets on
aircraft powered by kerosene.   Environmentalists claim it is a major carbon producer,
fuelling rising world temperatures.

Airlines and aircraft designers have been feeling the heat.   Plane-makers Boeing
and aircraft engine manufacturers General Electric have been working with Virgin
to cut down their flights’ carbon footprints.

What is exciting the aviation industry is the fact the aircraft is completely
unchanged, using the same engines as any scheduled, passenger-carrying flight.
Only the fuel is different.

The flight follows a journey made by an Airbus A380 earlier this month using
another alternative fuel – a synthetic mix of gas-to-liquid – in one of its four
engines. It flew from Filton in the UK to Toulouse in France, a journey of some
900km (560 miles), and was in partnership with Rolls-Royce and Shell.

 Virgin’s chief Richard Branson wants biofuel in his planes

Air New Zealand is also working with Boeing and Rolls-Royce to mount a test flight
powered partly by biofuels later this year.

These are the first tentative steps in breaking the aviation industry’s reliance
on kerosene. But it is likely to be decades before aircraft are able to take to
the skies powered entirely by something other than fossil fuels.

One industry analyst told the BBC News website there were several problems to

Jet A fuel, one of the standard aviation fuels, has a stable energy content and
a low freeze point – meaning it is suited to the very low temperatures encountered
by high-flying aircraft.   Biofuels cannot be relied upon to operate as reliably
in the same temperatures.

Jet A fuel also burns consistently, which means it provides a reliable and safe
fuel source for long flights.

Airlines also want a biofuel which can be burnt in existing engines – rather
than having to replace every engine in their fleets.

There are other issues surrounding biofuels. There are concerns widespread planting
and use of biofuel crops could threaten natural ecosystems and raise food prices.  
It could also mean the deforestation of rainforests, which absorb massive amounts
of carbon.

Virgin remained tight-lipped about where its biofuel comes from until the day
of the flight but said it would be a “truly sustainable type of biofuel that doesn’t
compete with food and fresh water resources”.

Some environmentalists are sceptical.  They believe the secret to cutting down
aviation’s share of the carbon is cutting the amount of flights we take.

Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said: “Biofuels are
a major distraction in the fight against climate change. There is mounting evidence
that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible.

 “If Virgin was really serious about reducing the aviation industry’s impact
on the environment it would support calls for aircraft emissions to be included
in the Climate Change Bill.”

Green Party councillor and former chemist Andrew Boswell said: “Richard Branson
is making a huge mistake backing biofuels.   It means a huge amount of fuel we’ve
got to produce.”

Mr Boswell, who campaigns for the lobby group Biofuel Watch, said it was unsustainable
to try and replace transport’s share of fossil fuel consumption with biofuels
– there is simply not enough arable land to grow fuel crops and food.

Sunday’s flight may herald a new direction in aviation.  But any massive change
in the way we power our planes is unlikely, analysts say, to be just around the




Algae are fuelling Branson’s maiden flight       (Sunday Telegraph)

One of the plane’s four engines will be run on a composite fuel, which is 75
per cent standard aviation fuel and 25 per cent a secret biofuel recipe.

Airlines and their suppliers need to address criticisms that they are responsible
for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and rising.

Even Boeing’s environmental director Billy Glover concedes he has no idea when
the industry will manage to halt the exponential growth of its  CO2 emissions,
let alone reverse it.   And he doesn’t know when biofuels will make a dent in that
growth either.

The company is keeping the details of its biofuel top secret, although it is
believed to be an algae-based fuel. Virgin will announce the details of the fuel,
plus the identity of the company it is buying it from on Sunday.

Environmentalists have said that although they are good news for carbon emissions,
biofuels like ethanol are not a miracle cure because they compete with food crops.

Could it be that the biggest impetus behind the desperate search for new biofuel
technology comes from sky-high fuel prices? Crude oil prices have soared to record
levels in the last few years and are not expected to fall back any time soon.

Quite aside from any environmental concerns, Charles concedes there are sound
economic reasons for moving over to biofuel.

“It has the potential to be cheaper to operate in the future and when you’ve
got costs of $100 a barrel for fuel, that’s pretty important,” he says.

Boeing has been experimenting with a range of different plants that can be turned
into biofuels. These include babssu, a South African tree, jatorpha, an attractive
flowering plant, and halophytes, a salt-water tolerant plant. But the company
has worked most with algae-based fuels.

Glover says it would require a country “something about the size of Belgium”
to grow enough algae to supply the aviation industry’s needs.

So when will bio-fuelled planes be widely flown on commercial routes?

“It’s quite likely a plane will be flying on some form of biofuel in five years,”
says Charles.

Charles argues the commercial success of the project will be boosted by a design
that will make it easy to use across the sector.

“The fuel that we are using is a drop in fuel. That’s got to be an advantage
because planes won’t have to be modified to use it,” he says.

Glover is a little more circumspect: “In maybe five to seven years, this will
be a commercial product,” he says, but even then fuel will probably be a composite
– part biofuel, part petrol.

Glover says the companies’ efforts need to be part of much bigger package of
tackling pollution.

“It’s at the start of a whole wave which in the endgame could reduce aviation
pollution by 50%,” he says.

Boeing has said that any technical advances will be shared with rivals and Airbus,
which is developing its own biofuel that will be commercially tested later this
year, has said the same thing.

It is a rare moment of co-operation between two airline manufacturers who are
otherwise bitter rivals. But that won’t stop Boeing and indeed Virgin revelling
in the public glory of being the first ones to get a biofuel plane off the ground.

Algae are fuelling Branson’s maiden flight 
Nuts picked from Amazon rainforests helped fuel the world’s first commercial
airline flight partly powered by renewable energy on Sunday.


A Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flew from London to Amsterdam with one of its fuel
tanks filled with a bio-jet blend including babassu oil and coconut oil.   A Virgin Atlantic statement said the biofuel mix provided 25 percent of the
fuel for the test flight.