Japan Airlines demonstration flight concludes current series of alternative biofuel feedstocks testing
The Japan Airlines biofuel pre-flight team photo
Fri Jan 30 2009 – Following a series of test and demonstration flights across four continents over the past year, Japan Airlines (JAL) today concluded the programme of biofuel flights undertaken to prove the viability of second generation sustainable biofuels as a drop-in replacement for traditional jet kerosene fuel. Those participating in the programme are optimistic that such fuels could be used in commercial airline operations within three to five years. Today’s flight was the first use of the crop camelina in a jet fuel blend and the first using an aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.
The one-and-a-half hour flight of a Boeing 747-300 aircraft from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport carried a 50/50 blend of biofuel and Jet-A fuel in the middle-right (No. 3) of the aircraft’s four JT9D engines. A ground-based pre-flight test using the blend was conducted yesterday and today’s flight operations included quick accelerations and decelerations, and engine shutdown and restart.
“Everything went smoothly,” commented Captain Keiji Kobayashi, pilot of the flight. “There was no difference at all in the performance of the engine powered by the biofuel blend and the other three engines containing regular jet fuel.”
Data recorded on the aircraft will now be analyzed to determine if equivalent engine performance was seen from the biofuel blend compared to Jet A fuel. The initial analysis of the data will take several weeks and will be conducted by team members from Boeing, JAL and Pratt & Whitney. The pilot of the recent Continental Airlines twin-engined Boeing 737 test flight reported that the engine containing the biofuel blend used less fuel than the other with Jet A, although this is yet to be formally confirmed.
“Today is an extremely important day for Japan Airlines, for aviation and for the environment,” announced JAL Group President and CEO Haruka Nishimatsu. “The demonstration flight brings us ever closer to finding a greener alternative to traditional petroleum-based fuel. When biofuels are produced in sufficient amounts to make them commercially viable, we hope to be one of the first airlines in the world to start powering our aircraft using them.”
The biofuel component tested was a mixture of three second-generation feedstocks: camelina (84%), jatropha (under 16%) and algae (under 1%). Terasol Energy sourced and supplied the jatropha oil, as it did for the Air New Zealand flight that took place just before the New Year and the Continental Airlines flight on January 8. US-based Sapphire Energy, which also provided algae oil for the Continental flight, again supplied the oil for the JAL flight.
Camelina, also known as gold-of-pleasure or false flax, has been touted as a potentially successful source of a sustainable biofuel, given its high oil content and an ability to grow in moderate climates as a rotation crop with wheat and other cereal crops. It is said to be drought-resistant and mostly grown in the northern plains of the US and Canada, and originally comes from northern Europe and central Asia. Test plots are also underway in Malaysia, South Korea, Ukraine and Latvia.
Camelina seed pods are the size and shape of a small pea. The seeds are very small, amounting to about 400,000 seeds per pound (approx 182,000 per kg), and they are 40% oil, compared for example to 20% with soybeans.
The camelina for the JAL flight’s biofuel blend was supplied by Montana-based Sustainable Oils. The company says camelina does not displace other crops or compete as a food source and estimates that the state of Montana alone could support between two and three million acres of the crop, generating 200 to 300 million gallons of oil each year.
“There are currently a few thousand acres under management, with an expectation of hundreds of thousands of acres within three years,” said Tom Todaro, CEO of Sustainable Oils. “Within five years, projections are for between 100 million and 200 million gallons of camelina-based sustainable jet fuel.”
The fuel for the Japan Airlines flight was blended by UOP using its hydro-processing technology in the US and supplied by Nikki-Universal, a Japanese joint venture of UOP and JGC Corporation.
Jennifer Holmgren, UOP’s General Manager, Renewable Energy and Chemicals, said: “We have proven that we can produce renewable jet fuel from sustainable resources that is a drop-in replacement eliminating the need for costly changes to the fuels infrastructure and transportation fleet. This technology can be utilized to begin making an impact on the aviation fuel supply in as little as three years.”
President of Boeing Japan, Nicole Piasecki, commented that the aircraft manufacturer hoped commercial aircraft will begin using sustainable next-generation biofuels on commercial passenger flights within three to five years. “There are remaining hurdles to overcome, including gaining the support of regulators, airports, fuel distributors and others, as well as increasing the production of environmentally and socially responsible fuel sources,” she said. “Our industry is already working to secure its fuel future supply by establishing firm sustainability criteria to ensure that the environmental impacts and carbon dioxide emissions from biofuels are significantly lower than fossil fuel-based kerosene fuels.”
Pratt & Whitney was the last of the major civil aero engine manufacturers to be involved in a biofuel test flight. The company’s Asia Pacific Region Vice President, Greg Gernhardt, said: “Ground-based jet engine testing last year by Pratt & Whitney of similar fuels further established that the biofuel blend either meets or exceeds the performance criteria that is in place for commercial aviation jet fuel today.”
Paul Steele, Executive Director of the Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), which represents all sectors of the commercial air transport sector said the test flights that had taken place were strong examples of the progress being made by aviation in exploring how biofuels can reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. In addition, he said, “the ability to blend supplies from different sources will enable a more secure supply and regional diversity.”
He continued: “The most encouraging part of these trials is the tremendous cooperation that has been displayed by all parts of the industry involved.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has committed the airline industry to having 10% of its total jet fuel needs met by alternative fuels by 2017.