By Jeff St. John
Despite the successful tests of biofuel in test flights by Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand (ANZFF.PK) and, most recently, Continental Airlines (CAL), airlines and biofuel experts say a biofuel-powered airline industry is still many years away.
And others say it ain’t gonna happen.
The successful test flight this week of a Continental jet using a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel made from jatropha and algae — two hot crops in the roster of companies seeking to make “next-generation” biofuels from non-food sources — led the International Airline Transport Association’s environmental officer to speculate that some airlines might be flying on biofuels in the next five years. (That’s according to Point Carbon, a European energy and carbon market analysis firm.)
But the airlines themselves aren’t announcing plans to move that fast quite yet. Air New Zealand has said it wants to use biofuel for 10 percent of its flights by 2013, and German airline Lufthansa has plans to reach that 10-percent biofuel mark by 2020.
Airlines are increasing the blend of biofuel they’re using in test flights. The first biofuel-powered test flight by Virgin Atlantic Airways in February used a 20 percent blend of biofuel made of coconut and babbasu oil (see Virgin to Test Fly Bio Jet Fuel). Continental’s flight, along with a test flight by Air New Zealand last month, upped that blend to 50 percent (see Biofuel Powers Air New Zealand Test Flight). Air New Zealand used a biofuel made from jatropha.
Japan Air Lines (JALSY.PK) plans a test flight later this month, using a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel made from camelina, a grass grown in rotation with wheat and corn. All the airlines testing biofuel have pledged to use such non-food feedstocks, given the environmental and economic disadvantages of placing pressure on food supplies by making biofuel out of food crops like corn and soybeans.
Meanwhile, the British watchdog group Aviation Environment Federation has released a report questioning the safety and viability of using biofuel to replace even a fraction of airlines’ fuel needs. Beyond questions of safety, which the IATA disputes (see the article from Wired), the report’s author, Jeff Gazzard, said that it would be very hard to grow enough jatropha, algae and other plants to replace the roughly 240 million tons of jet fuel that airlines burn each year at present.