Virgin Atlantic is conducting the world’s first commercial aircraft flight powered with biofuel on Sunday.
The goal is to show biofuels will produce less carbon dioxide than normal jet fuels during the London-to-Netherlands flight, and that airlines could one day use biofuels to reduce their damage to the environment.
“This breakthrough will help Virgin Atlantic to fly its planes using clean fuel sooner than expected,” Sir Richard Branson, the airline’s president, said before the flight. “The demonstration flight will give us crucial knowledge that we can use to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.”
Some analysts praised the Boeing 747 test flight as a potentially useful experiment. But others criticised it as a publicity stunt by Branson and noted that scientists are questioning the environmental benefits of biofuels.
“It’s great that somebody like Richard is willing to put some of his billions into an experiment aimed at reducing the climate change impact of aviation,” said James Halstead, an airline analyst at the London stockbroker Dawnay Day Lochart.
“But there are a lot of unanswered questions about the usefulness of biofuels in the battle against global warming,” he said.
Virgin Atlantic spokesman Paul Charles predicted biofuel would produce much less CO2 than regular jet fuel, but said it will take weeks to analyse the data from Sunday’s flight.
It is just the latest example of how the world’s airlines are jumping on the environmental bandwagon by trying to find ways of reducing aviation’s carbon footprint.
These efforts have included everything from finding alternative jet fuels, to developing engines that burn existing fuels more slowly, to changing the way planes land.
The experiment by Virgin Atlantic and its partners - Boeing and General Electric - also comes at a time when high oil prices and the US economic slowdown are promoting consolidation in the airline industry.
Aircraft engines cause noise pollution and emit gases and particulates that reduce air quality and contribute to global warming and global dimming, where dust and ash from natural and industrial sources block the sun to create a cooling effect.
About a year ago, the European Commission said greenhouse gas emissions from aviation account for about 3 per cent of the total in the European Union and have increased by 87 per cent since 1990 as air travel cheapened.
Charles said Virgin’s Boeing 747-400 jet and its engines did not have to be redesigned to use an existing biofuel on the one-hour test flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam.
He said CO2 emissions on a normal flight are generally three times the fuel burned, and that technical engineers on the test flight will take readings and analyze data to estimate its greenhouse gas emissions.
The world is currently rushing to develop biofuels, especially ethanol from corn and cellulosic feedstock such as switchgrass and woodchips, as a substitute for gasoline.
But recent scientific studies have found that almost all biofuels cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels, if the full emissions costs of producing these ‘green’ fuels are considered.
To support biofuel development, a large amount of natural land is being converted to cropland globally. The destruction of natural ecosystems releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, and deprives the planet of natural sponges that absorb carbon emissions. In addition, cropland absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.
That is one reason Mark Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University, questioned the test flight’s value.
“The recent studies are just the latest ones to show problems with biofuels,” he said.
Even if biofuels reduce airline’s CO2 emissions, they will still produce significant air pollution of particles and oxides of nitrogen in the upper atmosphere, Jacobson said.
He also said such test flights should be evaluated by independent scientists, not just technicians working for the companies involved.
Still, Virgin Atlantic is not the only airline conducting or planning test flights with nontraditional fuels.
Earlier this month, an Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger jet, became the first commercial plane to be powered by alternative fuel on a test flight. The superjumbo’s Britain-to-France flight was powered with a blend of regular fuel and liquid fuel processed from gas.
Air New Zealand also plans next year to join up with Rolls-Royce Group and Boeing to conduct a test flight of a Boeing 747, partly running on biofuel. (Reuters)
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