Airline industry advances use of biofuels

By Hope Deutscher | April 15, 2008
Virgin Atlantic and its partners Boeing, GE Aviation and Imperium Renewables Inc. have demonstrated that a commercial airliner using renewable fuel can fly. On Feb. 24, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet flew from London to Amsterdam, burning a mix of 20 percent biofuel containing babassu and coconut oils, and 80 percent standard jet fuel in one of its four engines without any modifications to the aircraft. Technical advisors were on board, collecting and recording flight data for analysis, which will be used in future research and the development of next-generation biofuels. Boeing will also use the findings in another demonstration flight later this year.

Seattle-based biodiesel producers Imperium Renewables prepared the biofuel, which must stay liquid in frigid, high-altitude temperatures. "It's a good day, not only for biojet fuel, but for all biofuels," said Imperium spokesman John Williams. "If you want to prove that the plane can fly on biofuels, you've got to fly on biofuels."

Prior to the flight, extensive laboratory and static-engine testing was conducted to evaluate the energy and performance properties of the biofuel. "The fuels performed as expected," said Tim Held, manager of Advanced Combustion Engineering at GE Aviation. "The team entered the historic flight demonstration with great confidence."

Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, said the flight marks a biofuels breakthrough for the airline industry. "This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future, fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae," he said.

Boeing and GE Aviation are also partnering with U.S. carrier Continental Airlines to conduct a biofuels demonstration flight in 2009. Continental is the first major U.S. carrier to announce plans to highlight technological advancements in sustainable biofuels. "Exploring sustainable biofuels is a logical and exciting new step in our environmental commitment," said Mark Moran, Continental Airlines executive vice president of operations. "For more than a decade, we have been focused on reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions, while providing industry-leading service to the places our customers want to go. Boeing and GE Aviation have been frontrunners in pioneering technology that will benefit the aviation industry, customers and the environment, and we are pleased to benefit from their expertise in this venture."

The 2009 biofuel flight will use a Boeing Next-Generation 737 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines. CFM is a 50/50 joint venture of General Electric Co. and Safran Group. Currently, Continental, Boeing and GE Aviation are working with an undisclosed fuel provider to identify sustainable fuel sources. Officials said additional details, including the flight plan, will be announced closer to the demonstration flight date.

Will Thurmond, biodiesel analyst and author of "Biodiesel 2020: A Global Market Survey," said a number of biofuel-powered flight projects are in development. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Honeywell Inc. are testing algae as a feedstock for jet fuel, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Chevron Corp. are working on a similar project. The U.S. Navy and meat processor Tyson Foods Inc., along with synthetic-fuel producer Syntroleum Corp., are producing renewable diesel from chicken fat for use in B-52 bombers.
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