Aviation Biofuels Tested

Michael Giberson

The Houston Chronicle, among others, report on a Continental Airlines test flight relying in part on biofuels.

On Wednesday, a Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 became the first U.S. commercial jet to fly on a mix of conventional jet fuel and biofuels….

“The airplane performed perfectly,” test pilot Rich Jankowski said. “There were no problems. It was textbook.”

The plane burned 3,600 pounds of a 50-50 jet fuel-biofuel mix in one engine and roughly 3,700 pounds of traditional fuel in the other, meaning the test batch was somewhat more efficient, he said….

The biofuel blend is noteworthy because it is “drop-in” fuel, noted Larry Kellner, Continental’s chairman and chief executive. That means neither the aircraft nor the engine need to be modified to fly, he said.

The biofuel blend included components derived from algae and jatropha plants. Both are sustainable, second-generation sources that don’t have an effect on food crops or water resources, according to Continental.

The algae oil was provided by Sapphire Energy, and the jatropha oil was provided by Terasol Energy. Other partners with Continental on the project were Boeing, CFM International, a joint company of General Electric and Snecma, and refining technology developer UOP, a Honeywell company.

Sustainable biofuels for aviation are a real near-term option, Jennifer Holmgren, general manager of UOP Renewable Energy and Chemicals, said Wednesday.

“We believe production levels could reach hundreds of millions of gallons per year by 2012,” Holmgren said.

Last week Air New Zealand conducted a similar test, also using a blend of conventional jet fuel and a jatropha-based product. These tests and others are part of a concerted industry effort to collect data on biofuel performance.  In the Continental Airlines test, only about 2.5 percent of the biofuel was from algae and the rest was from jatropha.

The United States produces nearly 18.6 billion gallons of aviation fuel annually (approximately 600 million barrels), so a mere added “hundreds of millions of gallons” annually would be a just a few percentage points. Still, diversifying sources of fuel supply could be useful, and of course environmental benefits are the intended target of the efforts.

Aviation fuel proponents are keen to avoid the food-vs.-fuel backlash that has hit ethanol. One reason for the attraction to jatropha is that is will grow on what would be low-quality or non-arable lands.  But of course if it will grow on low-quality lands, it will likely do well in high-quality lands, too. Part of Terasol Energy’s role in providing the jatropha oil was to certify that the source jatropha was grown on land that was not mechanically irrigated, and that the land was neither forest land nor virgin grassland within the previous two decades.

Aviation biofuels do have their critics, and WIRED’s Autopia blog conveys the concerns of Jeff Gazzard of the Aviation Environment Federation:

“For us, the jury is still well and truly out as to whether either synthetic or biofuels are yet capable of being either entirely fail-safe for aviation use or environmentally sustainable in the longer term,” Gazzard writes in his report, Bio-Fueled or Bio-Fooled.

… Gazzard is underwhelmed by the high-profile alt-fuel tests we’ve seen to far. Like others, he dismisses as a publicity stunt Virgin’s much-ballyhooed test flight of a Boeing 747 that flew from London to Amsterdam with one of its four fuel tanks carrying a 20 percent mix of biofuel. The plane, which used a mixture of coconut and babassu oils, would have needed some 3 million coconuts had it made the flight entirely on biofuel, he says.

… Gazzard argues the aviation industry and governments are more interested in appeasing critics than finding alternatives to oil.

[Link in source.] No doubt it is true that both companies and governments are interested in appeasing critics, but I certainly do believe that airlines would be happy to find an alternative to petroleum-based fuels, at least if it were not much more costly that petroleum while at the same time seen as better for the environment.

See also informative reports from Scientific American online, The Australian, and material at the New York Times: a recent article and related reports on the Green Inc. blog.

2 thoughts on “Aviation Biofuels Tested

  1. “Gazzard argues the aviation industry and governments are more interested in appeasing critics than finding alternatives to oil.”

    That is a tough audience. It is not enough to do as they want, you must believe as they do.

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