World’s First-Ever Alternate Fuel Flights

In late December, Air New Zealand conducted a two-hour test flight that used a biofuel blend of 50:50 jatropha oil and Jet A1 fuel to power one of its 747-400 Rolls-Royce RB211 engines. In early January, a Continental Airlines 737-800 flew for an hour-and-a-half with an engine fueled by a combination of jatropha oil and algae oil.

Success of the tests is significant in that they present truly viable alternatives to present fuels with their higher CO2 discharges. In fact, the production processes for of biomass feedstocks is expected to be licensed by the middle of this year, according to one of the partners in both of the test flights. According to reports, it’s hoped that large-scale commercial production could be possible as early as 2012, which is in line with Air New Zealand’s goal of using the fuel in 10% of its domestic fleet.

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Air New Zealand explains that jatropha is a plant that grows to approximately ten feet high, producing seeds that contain inedible lipid oil that is used to produce fuel. Each seed produces between 30 and 40% of its mass in oil. Jatropha can be grown in a range of difficult conditions, including arid and otherwise non-arable areas. First generation biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel are derived from food crops that are not cost competitive with existing fossil fuels, and are not considered to be sustainable in addition to producing higher CO2 emissions than second-generation biofuels.

Air New Zealand and its partners in the venture had three criteria that were met for the flight. The airline explains that social considerations meant that the fuel had to be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food resources. Technical criteria was that the fuel serve as a drop-in replacement for traditional fuels and be as good as products currently in use. The final criterion was commercial. The fuel had to be readily available and cost competitive with existing fuel sources.

Partners for Air New Zealand were Boeing Commercial Airlines, Rolls-Royce and UOP LLC, a Honeywell Co. The Continental test involved GE Aviation/CFM International in addition to Boeing and UOP. Jatropha oil for both the Air New Zealand and Continental flights was Terasol Energy. Sapphire Energy produced the algae oil used in the Continental flight.

In addition to jatropha, camellina, another nonfood crop, is regarded as a second-generation biofuel that may be readily produced. Jennifer Holmgren, Ph.D., general manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals at UOP was at both tests, and claims that, “Algae, when it goes on line, when it does become cost-competitive” may be produced in billions of gallons a year. However, she adds, “there are a lot of technical hurdles that need to be dealt with to make it commercially viable.”

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