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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 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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