Aviation might have found the fruit of success

2 Jan 2009 by intern11

That is what Air New Zealand (ANZ), Boeing, UOP and Rolls-Royce hope, at least.

On Tuesday the four jointly carried out an experiment of flying a Boeing B747 for two hours on a mixture of fuel: the first half being standard A1 jet fuel, while the other was a biofuel made from a poisonous plant, jatropha.

The aim of the test was motivated by several reasons, including the pressure for airlines to cut their carbon footprints, the dependency of carriers on conventional jet fuel and the promise of a cheaper alternative source of power.

But ANZ is not alone in the search for a better fuel. Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic had tried performing a similar feat with an 80-20 mix of jet fuel and a biofuel derived from coconut and palm oil. Later this month, Continental Airlines will also carry out its own tests, using jatropha and algae to fly a B737.

The IATA (International Air Transport Association) has set a 2017 target to have alternative fuel make up 10 percent of its members’ power needs. In 50 years time, the association, comprising of 230 airlines hopes to fly carbon-free.

The jatropha plant originated in Central America but has found its way to Africa and South Asia. Unlike many first-generation biofuels (such as palm oil and corn), it can grow with little water and fertiliser, does not compete for land with food crops and is resistant to pests.

Each seed from the plant contains up to 40 percent oil, which can be used to power a diesel engine; the remaining portion of the plant can be processed into biomass.

Already India, the Philippines and several countries in Africa are planting the crop to reasonable success. India alone has 110, 000 million sqm of jatropha plants and has used it to power trucks and buses, as well as the train linking Mumbai and Delhi.

While ANZ hailed the test as a “significant milestone”, jatropha has not yet been determined as commercially sustainable and group manager Ed Sims said that it would take at least four more years before the carrier could gain easy access to sufficient amounts of jatropha.

It is still unclear whether cultivating the plant will be able to help the aviation industry (or on a larger scale, humankind). Recently it was reported that 22 children in India were hospitalised after consuming jatropha seeds.

He Ruiming

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