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
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
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
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
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.