Successful Air New Zealand jatropha biofuel test flight hailed as a commercial aviation milestone
(from left) Jennifer Holmgren (UOP General Manager), Billy Glover (Boeing MD Environmental Strategy), Captain David Morgan and Captain Keith Pattie (Air New Zealand), Christopher Lewis (Rolls-Royce Fuels Specialist) and Rob Fyfe (Air New Zealand CEO)
Tue 6 Jan 2009 – Last Tuesday’s flight of an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 aircraft using a jatropha biofuel blended 50/50 with conventional Jet A1 fuel to power one of its four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines met all ground and inflight performance tests, according to the airline. Engineers are now assessing the effects of the biofuel on the engine and the aircraft’s fuel systems. Meanwhile, Continental Airlines has confirmed its own test flight will go ahead tomorrow (7 Jan) in which a fuel blend derived from jatropha and algae will be used on a twin-engined Boeing 737-800.
The two-hour Air New Zealand test flight included more than a dozen key performance tests, including a full-powered take-off, switching off the biofuel engine fuel pump at 25,000 feet to check fuel lubricity, engine performance checks at 35,000 feet, a ‘windmill’ start at 26,000 feet and starter-assisted relight at 18,000 feet, and a simulated missed approach and go-around at 8,000 feet to test performance under maximum thrust.
“We stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development,” commented Captain David Morgan, the airline’s Chief Pilot, afterwards. “Air New Zealand has an active commitment to the development of biofuels and is proud to be playing its role in that journey by being the first to prove the viability of a second generation biofuel such as jatropha.
“Beyond last week’s flight there is a great deal to be done by the industry as a whole and Air New Zealand will continue to lend its support. Certainly the data from our biofuel test flight will be a critical component towards helping jatropha become a certified aviation fuel. In addition, Boeing, in conjunction with Yale University, is analyzing the carbon life cycle properties of jatropha for aviation use, with a report due towards the end of 2009.
“We remain committed to our ambition of having 10% of our fuel needs met by alternative fuels from 2013, but appreciate there are many more steps to be taken by experts in other areas to deliver biofuel as a commercial aviation fuel source.”
The test flight programme is a joint initiative between Air New Zealand, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Honeywell’s UOP. The jatropha was sourced by Terasol Energy from India and south-eastern Africa (Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania). Terasol verified the plants used met the sustainability criteria set by the partners, which required the land used to grow the jatropha curcas plants was neither forest land nor virgin grassland within the previous 20 years, the quality of the land and soil was not suitable for the “vast majority” of food crops, and the farms were rain-fed and not mechanically irrigated.
The jatropha lipid oil was refined into jet fuel by UOP in the United States and underwent pre-flight laboratory testing by Rolls-Royce in the UK to ensure it met the stringent standards required for jet fuel.
Terasol is also sourcing the jatropha oil for the Continental Airlines flight, which is being blended with algae oil supplied by California-based Sapphire Energy. Sapphire has developed a proprietary refining process which converts photosynthetic algae oil into an oil rich in triglycerides and Free Fatty Acids which UOP has then refined into jet fuel through its ecofining process (see article). The jatropha and algae-based oils will be blended 50/50 with conventional jet fuel to power one of the two CFM International CFM56-7B engines of the Boeing 737-800.
Jatropha curcas plants (curcas is one member of the jatropha genus, of which there are about 175 members in total) produce non-edible seeds, each of which produces between 30 and 40 percent of its mass in oil. It requires little maintenance or water to survive – only about 10 inches (250mm) of rainfall a year – so can be grown in arid regions, and has a life of about 40-50 years. It is reported that a hectare (about 2.5 acres) containing around 2,500 plants can produce an average of 500 gallons (1,900 litres) of biofuel a year as well as more than 7,500 pounds (3,400kg) of waste biomass.
As the plant is a perennial (doesn’t die every year) it can sequester carbon too, with a fully-grown shrub absorbing around 8kgs of CO2 annually. Biofuels emit as much carbon as conventional jet fuel but jatropha is said to absorb about half the carbon that jatropha-based fuels release.
India is reported to be planning to plant 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of jatropha by 2012, with 7.4 million hectares of jatropha saplings already growing alongside the country’s railway tracks.
The Indian and African plantations that supplied the jatropha seeds for the Air New Zealand flight are reported to total around 125,000 hectares (309,000 acres). To meet Air New Zealand’s biofuel target of 10% of its fleet’s total annual fuel consumption – around one million barrels, or 160 million litres – it would require around 84,000 hectares of jatropha plantations to satisfy requirements.
“Clearly, we are a long, long way from being able to source commercially quantifiable amounts of the fuel and then be able to move that amount of fuel around the world to be able to power the world’s airlines,” commented Air New Zealand Group Manager Ed Sims on national radio, estimating it would be at least 2013 before it could access the quantities needed.
“It is Air New Zealand’s long-term goal to become the world’s most environmentally sustainable airline and we have today made further significant progress towards this,” said Rob Fyfe, Chief Executive Officer, after the test flight. “We stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development and it is exciting to be a part of this important moment in aviation history.”
Paul Steele, Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), a representative of organizations from across the aviation industry, said the flight was a significant step towards the industry vision of carbon neutral growth. “This flight and the other environmental projects underway at Air New Zealand provide leadership to others in the aviation industry and, importantly, other parts of the economy.”