Charlotte So in Auckland, SCMP – Updated on Dec 31, 2008
New Zealand’s national carrier is hailing a successful trial flight of a Boeing 747-400 jetliner using jatropha oil as proof that biofuels can be viable in future.
The trial, a joint programme with the aircraft maker, Rolls-Royce Group and Honeywell International’s UOP unit, tested a 50-50 blend of jatropha oil and conventional jet fuel in one of Air New Zealand’s four engines.
Just under two hours of flight tests were conducted over the Hauraki Gulf.
The first sustainable biofuel flight test took off in Auckland at 11.30am local time yesterday.
The two-hour flight test will provide data for civil aviation authorities.
Although oil prices were now more than US$100 below their July peak, the airline said the flight showed the commercial potential of the biofuel.
Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe said the jatropha-extracted biofuel was still competitive.
“Biofuel could help to eliminate 40 to 50 per cent carbon footprint from the airline, which translates to US$20 million in savings a year,” Mr Fyfe said.
The European Union is implementing an emissions-trading scheme for air travel to and from and within Europe in 2012, to offset carbon emissions. Since jatropha absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growing process and produces less emissions upon burning, the airline could save money on the offset cost.
Air New Zealand had set a target of adopting biofuel in 10 per cent of its domestic flights in five years. Mr Fyfe said it would expand its use of biofuel to international flights if biofuel won international recognition.
Jennifer Holmgren, the general manager of renewable energy and chemicals at UOP, a Honeywell company responsible for the production of jatropha oil for the flight test, said large-scale production of the fuel would be achieved by 2012 when output topped 100 million gallons. It was estimated that the percentage of second-generation biofuel to jet fuel would amount to almost 3 per cent by 2012, Ms Holmgren said.
The biofuel does not compete with conventional food crops.
The jatropha plant grows in arid regions, and each seed produces as much as 40 per cent of its weight in inedible oil.
A Virgin Airlines test flight in February used a 20 per cent biofuel blend made from babassu nuts and coconut oil.
Continental Airways will test a jatropha-algae blend next month; Japan Airlines Corp will test a fuel based on the camelina oilseed next month.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg