Air New Zealand confirms jatropha as its biofuel of choice for Boeing 747 test flight later this year
Jatropha plants at the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (photo: Boeing)
Thu 5 June 2008 – Air New Zealand has announced that it expects to use at least one million barrels of sustainable biofuel annually by 2013, satisfying 10 percent of its needs. It also says it will become the first airline to use a sustainable, second-generation biofuel when it carries out a test flight on a Rolls-Royce-powered 747-400 planned for the latter part of 2008.
The airline is increasingly confident, says its Chief Executive Officer Rob Fyfe, that sufficient commercial quantities of environmentally sustainable fuels that meet the required stringent technical criteria will become available “over the next few years”.
“Air New Zealand is absolutely committed to being at the forefront of testing environmentally sustainable fuels for use in aviation and we are confident that our hard work with partners like Boeing, together with the efforts of many of our peers, will see a step-change sooner than many people realize,” believes Fyfe.
“This fundamental shift in fuel options should be embraced by the industry and we aim to see at least 10% of our total annual needs coming from environmentally sustainable fuels by 2013. Studies have already shown that sustainable fuels can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, with a 40-50% lower carbon footprint on a life-cycle basis.”
Last week, Deputy CEO Norm Thompson said the airline aimed to convert at least part of its domestic fleet to using biofuels within five years, depending on regulatory approvals. Ultimately, he hoped that long-haul flights would be powered by biofuels but this would be made more difficult because of the challenges in sourcing the same fuels at overseas destinations.
Air New Zealand and Boeing have been working with Hawaiian agriculture experts to develop and test oil produced from poisonous seeds contained within the inedible nuts of the jatropha plant (some call it a tree, others a weed), with each seed containing about 30-40% oil. The jatropha oil Air New Zealand is sourcing for its test flight comes from Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania in south-eastern Africa, and India, and is grown on sustainable plantations. Jatropha (Jatropha curcas) can be grown in a range of difficult conditions, including arid and non-arable areas. It requires little water or fertilizer.
The oil will be refined into jet fuel at an unspecified hydro plant in the US – so far unnamed for competitive reasons. It will require final regulatory approvals and testing by the engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce.
Fyfe says the airline has been “non-negotiable” about the three criteria – social, technical and commercial – any biofuel must meet for its test flight programme. “Firstly, it must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food stocks. Secondly, the fuel must be at least as good as the product we use today. Finally, it should be significantly cheaper than existing fuel supplies and be readily available.”
The criteria for sourcing the jatropha oil also stipulated that the land it came from was neither forest land nor virgin grassland within the previous two decades; that the quality of the soil and climate is such that the land is not suitable for the vast majority of food crops; and the plantations are rain-fed and not mechanically irrigated.
A US energy analyst has estimated that jatropha fuel could cost about $43 a barrel, considerably less than the current price for crude oil.
“Our efforts on biofuel development are part of a much broader Boeing environmental strategy, but with fuel prices being what they are, and continuing to rise, this clearly a key element and one that holds promise for the aviation sector,” commented Boeing spokesman Terrance Scott.
Air New Zealand is already engaged in a fuel savings initiative programme, which has delivered a significant economic benefit, says General Manager, Airline Operations, Captain David Morgan. “We are using 36 million litres less fuel on an annual basis compared to when we started this programme and this is delivering a saving of $43 million each year based on current fuel prices.”
As a result, the airline says it is on track to see the airline reduce its CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tonnes.
“Air New Zealand has been at the forefront of finding ways to minimize our environmental impact and so far our flight operations programme has delivered 91,000 tonnes in reduced carbon emissions in just over three years,” says Morgan. “We had a goal of topping 100,000 tonnes within five years and we look like beating that by almost two years.
“Our initiatives range from reducing weight on aircraft to more accurate fuel loadings so that we are not flying with excess fuel weight, optimizing flight speeds, better use of ground power when aircraft are at the airport gate and improved descent profiles.”
Further efforts to reduce emissions include becoming the launch customer for the aerodynamic enhancement package on the fleet of Boeing 777-200 ER aircraft and a consideration being given to fitting winglets to its five-strong Boeing 767 fleet.
“Air New Zealand is now regularly approached by other airlines seeking to learn from our success and we are committed to making even more improvements over the next couple of years,” says Morgan.
“Environmental responsibility is a cornerstone of Air New Zealand’s flight operations and our team has made an outstanding effort to ensure the airline is a global leader and one our nation can be proud of.”