Qatar Airways announces immediate development of biofuel

11 Jan 2010 by Mark Caswell

Following Qatar Airways’ success in October in operating a commercial flight from London to Doha powered by a blend of conventional kerosene and alternative fuel GTL – a feat it claims is a world first – the airline has announced it will be branching out into the manufacture and supply of sustainable bio jet fuel.

While the airline was not inclined to reveal how much it would be putting into the joint project alongside Airbus, Qatar Petroleum and Qatar Science and Technology Park, it was keen to emphasise its motives were based on becoming more environmentally friendly.

Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, said: “While others talk, we take action.” He added: “In Copenhagen, everyone talked, some had a nice holiday, but in the end it was garbage in and garbage out. They failed. The world leaders in my country have visions. Qatar may be a small country but we have big ideas and deliver on these ideas. We aim to put our country ahead when it comes to sustainable energy.”

When asked when we could expect to see passenger planes flying with sustainable fuel, he said: “We have already taken the first step [with the GTL-powered flight]. I cannot say when the next step will be, but it will happen in a hurry because it needs to be done, not just for Qatar but for the whole world.”

So apart from being a potentially viable alternative to kerosene, which is good from an environmental as well as and financial perspective, how will it affect the individual traveller? Al Baker said: “If the costs increase, then the price of tickets will go up, however, keep in mind that even though the fuel may be expensive, there are added benefits due to the higher density of this fuel – you can fly with less for longer distances, so ticket prices will remain competitive.”

When asked about what targets Qatar Airways is working towards in terms of reducing its C02 emissions, Al Baker said: “We would like to cut at least 15-20 per cent as soon as possible and then go to higher cuts in the future as the technology develops.”

So in what way is biofuel a “green” alternative, given that it releases the same amount of CO2 as conventional fuel when it is burnt? Eulian Roberts, managing director of Qatar Science and Technology Park, said that it’s because it’s a carbon neutral process. “As much as you capture you release back to the environment. It has no negative affect on the environment.”

For example, fuel from plant sources such as corn or wheat, which take in CO2 and release oxygen, simply put back in the air the same levels of CO2 that were there before they were burnt. But critics argue that, while this may be carbon neutral in the sense that these types of biofuels don’t add to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, this doesn’t take into account other factors such as pesticides and use of natural resources, which may have a negative impact on the environment.

However, Qatar was keen to highlight that the fuel it will be investing in will be produced from “bio feedstocks” such as algae, that would not disrupt food supplies or use up fresh water, both variables that fuels from vegetable and animal fats, starches and sugars, tend to disrupt.

Al Baker said: “Qatar Airways has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the industry due to its investment of billions of US dollars in a state-of-the-art aircraft fleet. By entering into the production and supply of bio jet fuels, we will be able to get closer and closer to carbon neutral growth.”

Another benefit of biofuel is that, according to Al Baker, “it requires zero or very little modification to aircraft engines”, which means the fuel can be used as soon as it is available.

So even though Qatar is working alongside aircraft manufacturer Airbus on the project, the fuels should be compatible with its fleet of Boeing planes as and when the time comes. Al Baker said: “We operate both Airbus and Boeing planes but Airbus has been more proactive with experimenting with alternative fuels. We always want to work with a partner that has the ability and vision to support our futuristic ideas.”

Tom Enders, president and CEO of Airbus, said: “Following along the Airbus Alternative Fuels Road Map, by launching this new initiative with Qatar Airways, we have taken yet another important step to reach carbon neutral growth in the aviation sector by 2020. This industry-wide co-operation will achieve real progress in finding sustainable fuel alternatives.”

With the help of its partners, the airline is hoping to make the State of Qatar one of the global leaders for advanced biofuels.

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Report by Jenny Southan

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