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Wild Green Yonder? A 747 Fuelled Partly By Coconuts


Virgin Atlantic's First Commercial Biofuel Flight Doesn't Satisfy Critics, Who Call It 'High-Altitude Greenwash'

By Bertrand Marotte

Globe and Mail
February 28, 2008

Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson unveiled what he called the start of a new, cleaner, era for the airline industry Sunday: a flight partly fuelled by a clear liquid derived from coconuts and the Amazonian babassu tree. The London-to-Amsterdam flight by a Virgin Atlantic 747 jumbo jet was powered by three tanks filled with standard jet fuel and a fourth tank carrying a blend of 80 per cent standard fuel and 20 per cent oil from the coconut and Amazon babassu nut. The crossing - the first known commercial flight using biofuel - was billed by Sir Richard, founder and president of Virgin Atlantic, as a milestone in aviation history and a major move toward a viable alternative fuel that will help the airline sector reduce its carbon footprint." Today marks a vital breakthrough for the whole airline industry," he said during a ceremony at London's Heathrow Airport.

An executive with Boeing Co., which partnered with Virgin Atlantic in the project, said in an interview from London that the test flight shows conclusively that jet biofuel is now a practical reality and could be commercially widespread within five years. "Today's flight demonstrates you can use plants to make fuel and meet all the severe technical requirements," said Billy Glover, Boeing's managing director of environmental strategy. The technological advance may be welcome news for many frequent flyers frustrated at the lack of an airborne equivalent to the hybrid cars now available to consumers concerned about their carbon footprints. But some environmentalists take issue with aspects of the Virgin claims.

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr derided the flight as a "high-altitude greenwash." Beatrice Olivastri, head of Friends of the Earth Canada, said in an interview that "There isn't going to be one magic bullet and biofuel is only a small part of the bigger problem. The aviation sector is not known for its leadership on climate change." She said numerous alternative measures are already available, such as more efficient global traffic control and the introduction of more fuel-efficient aircraft. The airline industry's biofuel initiative, which was several years in the works, has also been criticized as a distraction in the fight to cut carbon dioxide emissions, with some saying that any carbon savings would likely be negated by increased airline travel. Environmentalists have also slammed biofuels derived from crops such as grain, vegetable oils and sugar as leading to a depletion of already scarce arable land and widespread deforestation. Concerns have also been raised that growing more crops for energy has helped drive up food prices. Some experts have said that so-called second-generation biofuels - algae, for instance - are a better source that doesn't compete with agriculture. "Algae looks very promising," Mr. Glover said.

Tim Jones, a policy officer at the World Development Movement, said the minimal amount of biofuel used in yesterday's trial underlines the difficulty of reducing aviation emissions: "It only reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent, and there is no technology available that allows us to fly without making emissions." Chris Zygarlicke, deputy associate director of research at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D., said in an interview yesterday that a five-year timeline for the commercialization of biofuels seems aggressive." "To get to where you are going to certify the fuel takes rigorous testing; to get to commercial scale is going to take a lot more research," he said." "We'll know more in a couple of years if we'll be able to produce large quantities at economical prices and meet the specifications."

The coconut and babassu-nut oils used in Sunday's flight are environmentally and socially sustainable, Virgin Atlantic said in a press release - both are found in common consumer products such as lip balm and shaving cream and don't compete with staple food sources. The company also emphasized that they were harvested from existing mature plantations. Sir Richard did acknowledge that the particular biofuel mix used Sunday will not be used commercially.Land given to coconut plantations would have to be vastly expanded to satisfy the demands of aviation, resulting in deforestation, and the babassu palms are not available in sufficient numbers.The airline industry, he said, will probably have to turn to algae in its search for viable biofuels. Algae are grown in ponds rather than on land, so they neither require deforestation nor take space that could be used for food crops. Sir Richard has promised to invest profits from his transport empire in biofuel production.

The test out of Heathrow Sunday was made in partnership with Boeing, engine maker General Electric and Imperium Renewables, a Washington State alternative-fuel company that made the coconut-oil and babassu-nut oil product. Mr. Glover said he anticipates that the first blends of commercially viable biofuel will be a mixture of regular kerosene-based jet fuel and green fuel, with the conventional product predominant. But he said it's feasible that there could be 100 per cent biofuel in use at some point.

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