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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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By Richlet on 2/25/2008 3:30:34 PM , Rating: 4
Sheesh, I didn't realise that so many people who read dailytech were such douchebag haters of people who care about the environment. I would have thought they'd be *into* new r&d of cleaner fuel solutions, not a bunch of hummer-driving dopes :P

RE: wow..
By rcc on 2/25/2008 4:14:55 PM , Rating: 4
haters of people who care about the environment

hmmmm, who were we discussing that actually cares about the environment?

RE: wow..
By eye smite on 2/25/2008 11:56:59 PM , Rating: 5
I think it's just a case of people being jaded by the global warming, mini ice age, natural changes in environment maelstrom of disinformation we all keep getting from the so called experts that can't seem to agree on anything. I could be wrong though.

RE: wow..
By MadMaster on 2/26/2008 12:58:40 AM , Rating: 1
haha look at some of the stuff these guys believe!

High gasoline prices are caused by refinery capacity!

Clearly, that isn't the case, (and wasn't back in April)...

Or hey, lets check out this article...

Obviously isn't the case.


"If I believe in anything non-conservative, I have to be a push over, give up my hummer, etc... That means liberals/environmentalists are the devil!"

It's Okay though, ultra-conservatives make me $$!

RE: wow..
By masher2 on 2/26/2008 1:36:34 AM , Rating: 4
> "Clearly, that isn't the case, (and wasn't back in April)..."

I'll just spend the time to just deconstruct one of your fallacies. Look at your posted link from the EIA. Examine refining percentage as a cost of gas for Jan 07 -- 10.6%. Now look at the percentage just 3 months later. It has risen to 28.1%, a rise of nearly three-fold in just three months. Do you actually believe refining costs tripled in 3 months time? The price of gas rose by 90 cents/gal in that interval, a period in which the cost of crude oil, measured as a percentage of gas prices, actually fell.


As someone who once actively traded commodity futures, let me explain how gas prices work. They're not set by oil companies, regardless of what some believe. They're set by the futures market, in a collective decision made by tens of thousands of traders. How do they work? Tactics vary, but the base strategy is simple -- look at the EIA's weekly figures on gasoline stockpiles, see if the value is rising or declining, and try to outguess the trend. A decling value means we're buying more gas than we make. A long-term decline requires price to rise enough to force demand down. Else the pumps will run dry and we all walk to work.

The effect of refining capacity on gas prices can be seen most clearly in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The temporary loss of several key refineries caused gas prices to skyrocket to $6/gallon in places. Look at refining costs Sep-Nov 05, which dropped by more than 400% in just two months time. That occurred as the refininers came back online.

You also see a similar effect every summer, as higher demand always causes gas prices to rise, whatever oil prices may do.

Is refining the only factor affecting gas prices? No, of course not. Historically, oil prices are a larger factor. The refining bottleneck only rears its ugly head when we approach 100% capacity points in the system. That leaves little room for unexpected shutdowns or problems, makes traders jumpy, and causes prices to rise.

RE: wow..
By MadMaster on 2/26/2008 2:20:03 AM , Rating: 2
This actually depends more on how you look at it.

If you call the price spike a $0.30 increase, then yeah it could increase it that much.

However, the price of crude is the main driving force for the price we pay at the pump. It usually accounts for more than 50%. The price for refining usually goes between $0.30-$0.90. But today, Refining cost is only at $0.30. We still have $3.00 a gallon gas.

The bottom line is building more refineries won't drop the price to a dollar a gallon gas, or even a $1.50.

RE: wow..
By masher2 on 2/26/2008 10:36:47 AM , Rating: 2
> "If you call the price spike a $0.30 increase, then yeah it could increase it that much"

Again, you ignore that refining capacity during Katrina spiked gas prices by ten times that much. You also ignore the fact that -- within a month of said article being written -- refining/marketing costs rose to 42%, adding over $1.30 to the cost of each and every gallon. Meaning that Jennings predictions were spot-on.

Since then, gasoline demand has actually fallen, thanks to higher prices. That, coupled with increased gas (NOT oil) imports from overseas, means we're no longer outstripping our refining capacity, and thus that bottleneck is (again, temporarily) not largely affecting prices.

But it will most certainly return at some point, especially if the nation continues its 32-year-long pattern of refusing to build any new refineries. Oil can be shipped cheap, but shipping refined gas from overseas is expensive and prone to delays and other problems. It's not a long-term solution.

RE: wow..
By MadMaster on 2/26/2008 1:22:07 PM , Rating: 2
If shipping the gasoline was twice the price as shipping crude, it would still only account for about $0.04 out of a gallon.

How about lets do something else, reduce demand for gasoline! Won't that push oil prices down?

Keep in mind that a barrel is 42 US gallons. Take the current price of 100 dollars per barrel / 42 = $2.38 per gallon of crude. The astute person might know that a barrel of crude usually puts out about 44 gallons of product (not all of it gasoline...depends on the type of crude and the process used). That means 100/44 = $2.27 per gallon of product. $2.27 / $3.00 (gallon of gas) = 75%. Granted there is variability between different types of crude. When the price of crude is $2.38 per gallon, I don't see how the price of gasoline can drop below that.

Your right when you say thousands of traders determine the price of crude. These thousands of traders want to secure their supply of crude and are willing to pay $90 per barrel to secure it. The reason is there is a tight supply of crude. We are not awash in crude anymore.

But your right, we will never run out, it will just cost $200 per barrel. That is if demand doesn't fall... (we need to use alternatives)

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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