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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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Algae is, indeed, the future.
By CryptoQuick on 2/26/2008 10:38:36 AM , Rating: 2
I currently work at an organization that is researching biofuels from algae. Hydrogen from algae is one option, however, producing biodiesel or ethanol from algae are entirely different propositions than hydrogen production.

Branson is correct in thinking algal biofuels are a good way to limit the impact of fuel production on a food supply (as evidenced by his choice of nuts and non-food staples), since raceways or photobioreactors can be built in areas that would not normally support food production, such as places with only brackish water or deserts. Technically, if you designed the system correctly, algae only use as much water as you take out of the system.

Many sources place the figure of biofuels production at around 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per acre per year. This may seem like a lot, but to put it more realistically, it's only 1-3 gallons per square meter per year. This may not seem like a lot of return from that land, however, to put these figures into perspective, consider that soybeans and corn produce about 10-100 times less fuel per acre/year, and with other fuel costs associated with agriculture, it may be that you will receive an overall net loss in your biofuels investment. One reason that algae are so efficient is that they spend less time building little plant parts, such as leaves and stems, and instead devote that to making more of themselves-- biomass.

Algae are very efficient at producing biomass that could be used for fuel, but may not be exactly what you want unless you use nutrient deprivation techniques to increase the amount of lipids or sugars in your feedstock. This feedstock is then converted to biofuels through either fermentation or transesterifcation.

Many companies are investing in biofuels programs, and the US even had its own, known as the Aquatic Species Program. One reason we do not have algal biofuels today is that phototrophs are notoriously difficult to mass-produce in a controlled environment, in part due to contamination by heterotrophs (bacteria take only 20 minutes to double, vs. an entire day for an algal culture, and thus, out-compete the algae for resources).

Biofuels production from algae is an extremely complex topic, and though there are many enthusiasts who believe that they can just harvest pond-scum and turn it into biodiesel, there are many other issues at play.

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