Sun 24 Feb 2008 – A Virgin Atlantic four-engined B747 today flew from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol with one engine filled with a biofuel blend composed of babassu oil and coconut oil. The event, covered by the world’s media, was the first inflight use of a biofuel. The Number 4 engine was filled with an 80/20 blend of standard Jet A-1 fuel and the oil extracts from Philippines-sourced coconuts and babassu nuts harvested from existing mature plantations in Brazil. No modifications were made either to the aircraft or the GE CF6 engines.
The aircraft, with five crew and technical staff onboard, is to undergo a full maintenance check at KLM, where the engine will be stripped down and checked. The data taken from the flight is expected to be shared with other interested parties within the industry.
Virgin’s President, Sir Richard Branson, described the flight as “a breakthrough for the whole airlines industry” and said it was “foolish to believe we can continue to rely on fossil fuels”.
He called on governments who impose ‘green’ taxes on aviation to reward those airlines who are making substantial efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing their tax burden.
The 500 gallons of biofuel used in the flight was supplied by Seattle-based Imperium Renewables. The babassu palm is found throughout the Amazon Basin, primarily in Brazil, and its fruit is used in products such as drugs and cosmetics, and its leaves are used to make roofs and paper.
Imperium’s President and CEO, John Plaza, said this biomass was useful for demonstration purposes because it was available now in sufficient commercial quantities. The company envisages that babassu oil could eventually replace any need for coconut oil in commercial applications of a bio-jet fuel. Babassu, it maintains, is a strong example of the potential of sustainable oil production, providing jobs to local workforces who were taking advantage of a naturally occurring source that avoided deforestation.
The oil from jatropha, a tropical and sub-tropical plant which grows widely in West Africa, is another interesting source. However, says Plaza, feedstocks like algae offer the best long term prospect and initial studies have shown that up to 5,000 gallons of fuel could be produced from an acre of algae. As technology developed, yields could be increased substantially. However, this has to be seen in the context that the aviation industry consumes some 87 billion gallons of jet fuel a year.
“Significant amounts of capital must be directed towards research and development to find next generation feedstocks which can be produced in sufficient quantities, at reasonable prices and in a sustainable manner that will not come into conflict with world food supplies,” says Imperium. “In fact, next generation feedstocks will greatly increase the available world food supply through the growth of high lipid content algae and the resulting co-products.
“Additionally, the need to promote and develop non-edible oilseed crops that can be grown on marginal lands is key to the advancement of this industry. Crops like jatropha, pongamia and others will allow more broad-based success and help ensure both economic and environmental sustainability for renewable fuels.”
Imperium says it follows guidelines while procuring vegetable oils set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, an international initiative that aims to bring together farmers, companies, non-governmental organizations, experts, governments and inter-governmental agencies concerned with ensuring the sustainability of biofuels production and processing. The company is also active on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
The project partners – Virgin, Boeing, GE Aviation and Imperium – are cautious in making claims regarding the amount of carbon emissions that can be reduced through the use of biofuels until more testing has been carried out but Boeing believes that their use could reduce overall aviation emissions by 50% by 2050 “or even sooner”.
Although Sir Richard Branson expressed hope that his fleet could be using biofuel blends within three years, five years is a more realistic timeframe as these second-generation fuels not only require more development but would also have to meet stringent regulatory standards over a period of time before they could be used on commercial flights.
Some environmentalists have condemned the flight as a “publicity stunt” but the partners believe they have made an important technology breakthrough with today’s flight.
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