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After the successful flight, Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson was seen juggling coconuts and spoke to reporters about the event, which he feels marks a "vital breakthrough"  (Source: Reuters)

The Virgin Boeing 747 took off from London's Heathrow airport and flew a test flight, fueled partly by Brazilian babassu nuts and coconut biofuel -- the first biofuel flight of a commercial jet  (Source: Virgin Atlantic)
Virgin airlines runs first biofuel flight; environmentalists less than thrilled

Virgin Atlantic just completed the first flight by a commercial aircraft powered partly by biofuel.  The flight was powered by a particularly outlandish biofuel -- a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts.  The mixture helped to power the Virgin Boeing 747 jumbo jet's flight between London's Heathrow airport and an airport in Amsterdam.  The airliner had no passengers, in event of failure.

Quirky Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson, claimed the flight was a "vital breakthrough" to the commercial airline industry.  He stated, "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."

Sir Branson stated that he thinks that future won't be in nut fuels like the one used by the flight, but rather in feedstocks such as algae.  He failed to elaborate what exactly Virgin's algae-powered plane plans were, though he may have been referring to current efforts to produce hydrogen with algae.

The flight had one of its four engines connected to the biofuel tank.  This engine relied on the biofuel for 20% of its power, or about 5% of the total flight power.  The other three engines were left powered on traditional fuel to ensure a safe flight if the biofuel powered-engine failed.  The company said it selected its nuts based on the fact that they were from mature plantations and were non-competitive with local food staples.  The nuts selected were most commonly used in cosmetics and household paper products.

While biofuels sound like a development that would be championed by environmentalists, numerous environmental organizations were less than nuts about the flight which they labeled a "publicity stunt."  Environmentalists point out that biofuels are currently mechanically and economically not viable, and warn of the possible negative impact on world food crops

One U.N. official, typically a supporter of environmental issues, called biofuels a "crime against humanity."  Many researchers have shared the opinion that biofuels, in their current state, do more harm than help.  Most of these groups acknowledge that emerging processes such as cellulosic ethanol production or microbial hydrogen production may yield acceptable solutions, but firmly believe that none of the on-market solutions are good ones.

While Virgin believes that many of its aircraft will be plant-powered within 10 years, skeptics point to biofuel's tendency to freeze at high altitudes, a possibly catastrophic problem.  Kenneth Richter, of Friends of the Earth blasted the flight as a "gimmick" which he says takes the focus away from providing "real solutions for climate change." 

Richter elaborates, suggesting a different approach, "If you look at the latest scientific research it clearly shows biofuels do very little to reduce emissions.  At the same time we are very concerned about the impact of the large-scale increase in biofuel production on the environment and food prices worldwide.  What we need to do is stop this mad expansion of aviation. At the moment it is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in the UK, and we need to stop subsidizing the industry."

Greenpeace chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, believes less air travel is the answer and labeled Virgin's press release as "high-altitude greenwash." Dr. Parr states, "Instead of looking for a magic green bullet, Virgin should focus on the real solution to this problem and call for a halt to relentless airport expansion."

While Virgin plans to blaze ahead with its biofuels program amid criticism, Airbus is testing another alternative fuel:  a synthetic mix of gas-to-liquid.  On February 1, it flew a plane from Filton near Bristol to Toulouse in a three hour test-flight using the fuel mix.  The aircraft used was none other than the world's largest jumbo jet, the A380.  Unlike Virgin, Airbus has been less vocal about its alternative energy flight program.

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Tree huggers will never be happy
By PAPutzback on 2/25/2008 1:52:45 PM , Rating: -1
Until we are all living in huts and a virus wipes us out.

If those poor farmers can bring money in by turning nuts into fuel then good for them and their economy. It better than the money going into terrorist pockets.

By mles1551 on 2/25/2008 2:01:54 PM , Rating: 4
It better than the money going into terrorist pockets.

Greenpeace are the terrorists. I'm all for environmental responsibility, but these guys are a step away from rigging old growth forests with IEDs.

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By JasonMick on 2/25/2008 2:02:33 PM , Rating: 4
I'll leave your first sentence alone.

But as to your second remark, I think the issue is that this is a financially unfeasible fuel structure. I don't know the exact price in terms of equivalent energy content per $ of nut fuel vs. gas, but I assure you the cost of nut fuel will be much higher. This is a niche resource, and would need a large noexistant processing infrastructure to even harvest what little capacity there is.

Aside from the economic unfeasibility, your remark about poor farmers is equally silly. If somehow this technology became profitable, do you honestly think "poor farmers" would ever see a cent of the profits?? Despite the minor trend to fair trade (read poor farmer) agriculture, most plantations are owned by wealthy businessmen in these nations, who profit on the backs of their poor laborers. This tech does nothing to improve social equity.

As far as your final statement, what the heck?? This article had nothing to do with terrorism. Last I checked not much money from coconut sales was being funneled to terrorism. I could be wrong -- I haven't researched the subject extensively, but I'd say that's a safe bet.

IMO biofuels in their current state are just not viable. Maybe if GM realizes celluosic ethanol or other breakthroughs are made, maybe then they might be in 3-10 years. But nut fuel, and current ethanol production are simply not practical. Focus on new methods and better solutions, I say.

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By AgentPromo on 2/25/2008 2:42:43 PM , Rating: 2
All good points but,

If we don't start somewhere with alternative fuels, we will never get anywhere with it in the long run. Eventually we will need to develop alternative fuels, and pricing pressure with oil and such right now is driving this.

Is ethanol the right answer, is switch grass, or even coconuts as in the article? They are all part of an effort to figure out how to make sure we have enough energy going into the future. Pricing pressures are forcing a return to science which in the long run is probably a good thing. Maybe one of these new techs WILL become the thing that allows us to better develop our own energy supplies.

And with anything else, the "right" answer is probably somewhere between Greenpeace's ideal and abolishing the EPA...

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By dever on 2/25/2008 3:18:22 PM , Rating: 4
I'm agreeing with the environmentalists (and even Jason Mick) on this one. Current biofuel solutions are a sham and a tax on the poor.

Unfortunately, the pricing pressures are not from decreased supply or even the increase in demand. They are primarily from government interfering with consumer choice.

Like almost all alternative fuels today, biofuels are propped up by corporate welfare. The politicians are taking your money that you would have used to better your family and lining the pockets of their friends who are timing their investments in alternative fuels surprisingly well.

Freeing consumers to choose will produce alternative fuels at precisely the right time and in exactly the needed quantities.

By Ringold on 2/25/2008 9:10:42 PM , Rating: 2
Despite the minor trend to fair trade (read poor farmer) agriculture, most plantations are owned by wealthy businessmen in these nations, who profit on the backs of their poor laborers.

Land ownership is an issue in development economics sure enough; America, for example, was lucky that it had a good initial land distribution among its people early on. That doesn't preclude growth, though; if it did, we'd have no growth now. The "poor" in America havent owned the means of production for about a century and a half; it's all belonged to the "rich", and yet in America and even Mexico, which has long had from its very start the land distribution setup you describe sees decent growth. Wage growth averages around 13% in China -- and not because of labor unions. I don't see the poor owning much of anything over there.

Regardless, I don't know what the solution would be to your problem. Zimbabwe confiscated commercial farmland from the evil, rich white owners and turned it over to those living and working on the farm. Productivity immediately collapsed from a once profitable industry to barely subsistence level, and the white businessmen and farmers fled the country, taking all their experience, money and power with them. Not to mention, property rights is a fundamental concept that has to be protected to encourage growth, especially in these places where investment is risky enough as it is.

Not that everything is perfect, but it's not all bad either.

article had nothing to do with terrorism.

Could've *possibly* been refering to various cash crops around the developing world that are used to make illicit drugs. Not sure, though. I guess that holds in Afghanistan, but I haven't counted drug cartels as terrorists myself..

By PAPutzback on 2/26/2008 9:08:26 AM , Rating: 2
I guess I should have clarified that money from us buying oil from the middle east gets into terrorist hands not the money from nuts. Not to dismiss the fact though that any money we do spend on products overseas does end up being used by terrorists at some point.

Bio fuels might not be viable now but you have to do large scale research at some point in order to work out the kinks. How long have we tinkered with Solar Energy before it started making any real gains, 20, 30, 50 years?

I know ethanol isn't doing any good. It has low performance, expensive to make and it is make all the other products based on the raw ingredients go up.

You might save 100 bucks a year on gas and just pay those gains back in wheat and corn products.

By eye smite on 2/25/2008 2:22:49 PM , Rating: 3
Lets face it, none of these NUTS are happy about anything unless they're in control of the topic and the money gained. One minute it's global warming, the next it's a mini ice age like was seen 400 yrs ago due to a decrease in solar flare activity. Does anyone honestly think these so called experts really know what they're talking about. I know I don't.

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By ikkeman on 2/25/2008 2:40:05 PM , Rating: 3
in fact - biofeuls have the potential to kill many more poeple than oil ever did. Right now, The profitable item - oil - is not also a vital foodstuff. Warlords and local dictaters (feudal monarchs and texan cowboys, take your pick) have little use and less interest in the crops of the poor poeple they opress. What happens when they can get more money for those very foodstufs. Do you think anyone in afrika will still have something to eat.
BtW, you can make biofeul out of nearly evere crop - just with differing efficiencies.

already, the price of beer is rizing because of an increased demand for hops (i think, may also be barley) for biofuels. The horror!

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By masher2 on 2/25/2008 3:38:18 PM , Rating: 3
> "already, the price of beer is rizing because of an increased demand for hops...for biofuels."

I think I smell the plot of a Bob and Doug McKenzie movie in there.

By CannedWeasel on 2/25/2008 9:33:27 PM , Rating: 2
"If I didn't have puke breath right now I'd kiss you."

By jbartabas on 2/25/2008 5:51:33 PM , Rating: 2
already, the price of beer is rizing because of an increased demand for hops (i think, may also be barley) for biofuels. The horror!

There's so much a man can take, even for the environment! Last time I bought my favorite IPA, I realized that we'll have to choose between the climate, or the beer ... as far as I am concerned, the planet is doomed ... :-D

RE: Tree huggers will never be happy
By eye smite on 2/26/2008 12:07:20 AM , Rating: 4
Why do you say biofuels have the potential to kill more people than petroleum products? Can you site some evidence on this?

I still maintain that experts are full of disinformation. They make leaps of logic, produce a conclusion and publish it. What testing or experiments have really been done with biofuels that magically gives experts the conclusions they're publishing? I take everything they say with a big dose of salt because.....they will say eroneous things to continue to get funding then correct themselves later but have a new issue to research for more funding. It's all just a game with these people.

By rhangman on 2/26/2008 1:36:15 AM , Rating: 2
A "vital breakthrough"? Certainly biofuels are nothing new (the model T Ford ran on ethanol).

I'm sure that the German's would have had planes running on biodiesel towards the end of WWII when they were running out of fuel. Also the Russian's had a natural gas powered Tupolev back in the 80's.

What's next? Bring back the horse and cart and call that an alternative fuel breakthrough?

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