This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

February 04, 2009

Three More Airlines Complete Test Flights Using Biofuels

Photo of four large seed pods hanging from a branch, with more branches and leaves in the background.

The oils extracted from the seed pods of Jatropha curcas plants were converted into a jet fuel that helped propel a recent New Zealand Air flight.
Credit: New Zealand Air

Under new collaborations with biofuel companies, jet engine manufacturers, and aircraft companies, airlines around the world have started testing the use of biofuels in their aircraft. Virgin Atlantic set the pace early last year, when it flew a flight from England's Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport that was fueled with biofuel produced from Babassu oil and coconut oil. (See the Virgin Atlantic press release.) In the past month, three more airlines have followed suit.

On December 30, Air New Zealand flew a four-engine Boeing 747-400 that fueled one of its engines with a 50:50 blend of jet fuel and synthetic paraffinic fuel. The synthetic biofuel was derived from the oil of the Jatropha curcas plant by Terasol Energy. Jatropha curcas grows readily on marginal lands, producing a non-edible oil. On January 7, Continental Airlines flew a Boeing 737-800—a two-engine aircraft—with one engine fueled with a 50:50 blend of biofuel and jet fuel. For Continental, Terasol Energy again provided its Jatropha-based fuel, while Sapphire Energy provided a fuel derived from algae oil. And on January 30, Japan Airlines flew a four-engine 747-300, again fueling one engine with a 50:50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel. Japan Airlines blended three biofuels: Jatropha-based fuel and algae-based fuel from the same companies used by Continental, as well as fuel derived from camelina, an oilseed plant, by Sustainable Oils, Inc.

All three flights put the fuels through a number of tests, such as operation under maximum thrust, with the main fuel pump shut down, and during engine shutdowns and restarts, and the fuels performed well. The Boeing Company and Honeywell's UOP, a developer of refining technology, were both involved in all three flights, along with the engine manufacturer for each aircraft: Rolls-Royce for the Air New Zealand flight, GE Aviation and CFM International for the Continental flight, and Pratt & Whitney for the Japan Airlines flight. The flights provided a preliminary indication that the synthetic jet fuel, derived from a variety of natural oils, can safely and effectively be used as a "drop in" replacement for petroleum-based jet fuel. However, all of the partners in the test flights planned to spend days or weeks analyzing the data to determine if there was any change in engine performance. Boeing and UOP have also formed the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, which will work with major airlines and environmental groups to accelerate the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation fuels. See the press releases from Air New Zealand, Continental, Japan Airlines, and Boeing.