Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Biofuels and Avation?

Refueling in Flight, New York Times

As of last Monday, the race is officially on to test fly the world’s first commercial airliner powered by biofuels. Yes, you read the aforementioned sentence correctly. The ever creative and bipedal primate known as homo sapien is at it again. This time, we will attempt to fly an aircraft powered with refined plant matter 30,000 feet into the air. In theory, these turbines, traditionally run on jet fuel, can burn most types of compressed fuel such as diesel, hydrogen and methane. The moment of Zen however, won't be achieved until we take these theories and apply them practically.

During a press conference on Monday, Virgin Chairman, Sir Richard Branson announced intentions to test fly a Boeing (BA) 747 fueled by biofuels his Virgin Group was currently developing. Branson, a stanch activist for global warming, formed Virgin Fuels in late 2006 by investing US$400 million over three years for renewable energy initiatives.
Virgin and its development partners, Boeing and General Electric (GE) have targeted the test flight for early next year.

However, Branson is not alone. In September of this year, Air New Zealand announced an agreement with Boeing and Rolls-Royce Group Plc to test-fly their own commercial aircraft. The consortium intends to mix kerosene and an unspecified bio-fuel in order to power one of the four engines. The flight is set for late 2008 or early 2009, according to the BBC.

Seemingly unbeknown to flashy Bronson or the environmentally friendly Air New Zealand, a rather microscopic startup company by the name of Green Flight International and its equally tiny partner Biodiesel Solutions achieved notoriety when they successfully completed an "experimental test flight in an L-29 aircraft powered by B100," or 100% bio-diesel.

The two pilots, Carol Sugars and Douglas Rodante flew the Czechoslovakia jet out of Reno, Nevada, gradually blending ever increasing concentrations of bio-diesel until 100% utilization. According to the press release the green flight attained performance levels comparable to those achieved with traditional jet fuel and reached an altitude of 17,000 feet!

Green Flight International was founded in 2006 by Rodante, "to serve as a platform for future development in the use of renewable fuels in aviation and other sectors." Furthermore, the company anticipates the announcement of additional "record-breaking" events shortly.

These developments within the private sector come after record oil prices and announcements by the United States Air force to "certify the entire fleet by 2010 with a 50-50 mix," or even mixture of petroleum and synthetic fuel. According to the New York Times, the Air Force burned "3.2 billion gallons of aviation fuel in fiscal 2005, or 52.5 percent of all fossil fuel used by the government." These dynamics have made aviation an increasingly costly undertaking. Since securing safe and cost-effective sources of energy is of strategic importance to our national security, it has now become attractive to explore alternative resources for our jet fuel consumption, even if commercial use is some years away.

Disclosure: The author has no position in any of the aforementioned companies.