If you thought coconut oil was meant only for cooking purposes, think again. It is now also going to be used for flying aircraft. United Kingdom-based Virgin Atlantic recently became the world’s first airline to fly an airplane fuelled by a coconut and babassu nut biofuel mixture.
An entrepreneur with a voracious desire for venturing into new businesses, Sir Richard Branson told Emirates Business that he is all for making airspace a pollution-free field for airlines across the world.
The airline in February successfully flew one of its Boeing 747s using a sustainable type of biofuel, from London to Amsterdam.
The 58-year-old founder and chairman of the Virgin Group plans to go one step ahead and grow algae plants to deliver alternative fuels for aircraft engines.
“It would be wonderful if algae-based fuel can be cheaper than fuel that is dug up in, say, Saudi Arabia. Personally, it is more likely than not that it will be,” Branson told Emirates Business.
“But planes cannot run on biofuel at the moment because bioethanol and biodiesel are not suitable for high altitude flying. But we are working on other fuels, which do look promising at the moment. However, the breakthrough is a few years away,” he added.
Virgin Atlantic is not alone in its hunt for alternative fuels. Qatar Airways is also not too far away from achieving its goal of flying airplanes on natural gas.
The Doha-based carrier, during the Dubai Air Show in December last year, signed an agreement with Qatar Petroleum, Qatar Fuel Company, Shell International Petroleum Company, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Qatar Science and Technology Park, to research the potential benefits of Synthetic Jet Fuel in aviation engines.
“Whatever is being done right now is very experimental. We don’t how much we’ll save but what we can say that the jet fuel will be three to four per cent more efficient than the current fuel,” said Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways.
Branson added: “It would help if we can produce fuel that is cheaper than the current fuel. And if it is a clean fuel, hopefully we will get rid of the taxes that the governments are imposing on airlines. And therefore, hopefully the cost of airline travel will decrease and not increase in the future.”
Yet another airline to soon jump the biofuel bandwagon is Air New Zealand, for which a biofuel jet flight demonstration is in the planning stages, along with the US aircraft manufacturer, Boeing and engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce.
The joint project is designed to help accelerate the development of sustainable alternative fuels for commercial aviation, according to the three players.
While Air New Zealand’s demonstration flight is planned for the second half of 2008, Boeing officials say they are exploring second-generation biofuel feedstocks and processes that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle.
Industry experts, meanwhile, are of the view that alternative fuels are crucial for commercial aviation.
“That’s because fuel costs have grown too high and appear to be a threat to industry sustainability,” Addison Schonland, aviation analyst with Innovation Analysis Group, told Emirates Business.
Alternative fuels save costs?
“It ought to be more cost-effective,” said Branson, adding: “That’s because once the fuel is dug up a lot of the profit has to go to the local country, and the oil company. Then it has to be put on ships, after which it has to go to an oil refinery in, say, India, and then it gets refined into aviation fuel.
“Afterwards, it is put back on another ship and then it comes through to England and then it gets on to a fuel tanker and has to travel by road to Heathrow and then finally put on our planes. So there are a lot of costs involved in that long process,” said Branson.
“Whereas, with algae plants, we could literally take up all the sewage plants in the United Kingdom and simply grow algae above the sewage,” he added.
Schonland begs to differ. “These fuels do not save costs. What happens is that airlines have an alternative. If we knew that fuel was going to stay at $4/gallon then the market adjusts. What is driving airlines crazy is that the current fuel cost increases are happening so fast they cannot adjust their fares quickly enough.”
Branson, meanwhile, argues that saving costs is not the prime reason for doing it. “It is a genuine concern about global warming and the need that the aviation industry is causing two per cent of the carbon emissions problem, which will grow because more planes will come along. So we need to address that problem.”
According to Schonland, however, the driving force here has less to do with green in environmental terms and more to do with green in money terms. “It’s the cost of fuel that has enabled alternatives to spring up. When fuel was cheap the alternatives were expensive. They are relatively less expensive now,” he said.
“Qatar Airways can afford to go down this road as they have huge gas reserves to create fuel with. But what happens when they refuel in New York, for instance? They have to buy like everyone else,” he pointed out.
Boeing and Airbus join in
Boeing is in discussions with fuel providers around the globe to identify potential biofuels that are available in suitable quantities for laboratory and jet engine performance testing and in compliance with stringent aviation requirements.
The European aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, meanwhile, announced in February that its superjumbo A380 has became the first commercial aircraft to complete a flight using liquid fuel processed from gas.
GTL (gas to liquids) involves converting natural gas, which emits the least carbon of all the fossil fuels, to a liquid fuel oil, which can be used as a fuel substitute, or mixed with regular fuel. The three-hour flight from the United Kingdom to France was the first stage of a test flight programme to evaluate the environmental impact of alternative fuels in the airline market.
The International Air Travel Association (Iata) has called for the aerospace industry to build a zero emissions aircraft.
“It’s time for governments and the oil industry to make some serious investments. The first target is to replace 10 per cent of fuel with low-carbon alternatives in the next 10 years. And the second is to begin developing a carbon-free fuel from renewable energy sources,” said Giovanni Bisignani, Iata’s director-general and CEO.
Bisignani said he challenges the United States, Europe, Canada, China, Brazil, Russia and Japan to co-ordinate basic research on a zero-emissions aircraft and then compete to develop products based on this research.
“Clean fuel is also critical,” he said.
While biofuels will help cut down carbon emissions, experts warn of it also leading to inflation in agriculture product prices.
“Largely because of rising fuel prices, growing demand from developing economies and to some extent the effect of the biofuels industry, we are seeing rapidly declining food stocks and sharply rising prices,” Robin Lodge, United Nation’s spokesman for World Food Programme, was quoted by an international news agency as saying.
The UN agency World Food Programme has seen prices rise 40 per cent in the past nine months for the grains, pulses and vegetable oil it buys.
Food prices in Syria have risen 20 per cent in the past six months, Lodge said. And in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, the price of wheat has doubled since February, while rice and vegetable oil have gone up 20 per cent in two months.
10% The percentage of conventional fuel to be replaced by the low carbon alternatives as suggested by the IATA in 10 years
40% The rise in prices of basic food items in the past nine months according to WFP
Biofuels set to decide future of high fliers