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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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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.

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