In another step forward for biofuels, a commercial jet took to the skies yesterday over New Zealand to test a new jet fuel blend that uses oil from the oily jatropha plant. Air New Zealand announced that a Boeing 747 plane flew for about two hours yesterday, running on a 50/50 blend of conventional jet fuel and biofuel. Jatropha—a weedy bush from Africa that produces seeds rich in oil—was selected because it is not a food crop and can be grown on land unsuitable for food production. The roughly three tons of liquid jatropha biofuel came from plants grown in India, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, the airline says [Scientific American].
Air New Zealand is the second airline to test-fly a jet plane powered by biofuel. The first was Virgin Atlantic Airways, which in February flew a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam with one of its four tanks filled with jet fuel containing a 20 percent blend of biofuel made of coconut and babbasu oil [Greentech Media]. Meanwhile, other airlines are developing jet fuels derived from algae or oilseed plants: Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines both have test flights scheduled for January.
Over the past few years, skyrocketing oil prices and increasing concern over the aviation sector’s contributions to global warming have spurred investigations into alternative fuels for airplanes (fuel burned by airplanes accounts for three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions). The International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines, wants its members to use 10 percent alternative fuels by 2017. The association has the goal that airlines will be able to fly carbon-free in 50 years, with the help of technologies like fuel cells and solar energy. Such goals have ensured that research and development into greener flying have continued, despite the plunge in oil prices below $40 a barrel [The New York Times].
Finding an alternative fuel that lives up to exacting aviation standards has been challenging, though. Airlines cannot use standard first-generation biofuels such as ethanol because these would freeze at high altitude. In addition, environmentalists argue that manufacturing biofuels can produce more emissions than they absorb when growing, and can also displace agricultural crops and push up the price of food [The Guardian]. That’s why jatropha has been embraced as an ideal biofuel source: It’s an inedible plant with poisonous seeds, it needs very little water or fertilizer, and it can grow in sandy or salty soil.
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Image: Air New Zealand