Air Transport World

Exotic no more: biofuels are entering the mainstream. Algae may be the answer for aircraft.

Mere months ago, many experts relegated biofuels for commercial jets to the realm of the quasirealistic--something hovering just over the horizon. This magazine said as much in our May 2007 story "Fueling the Future" (ATW, 5/07, p. 38). Things have changed. Predictions that jet biofuels were decades away have become far more proximate. "If you'd asked me that question 12 months ago, I would probably have said a realistic timeframe would be two decades from now," says Nathan Agnew, GM-strategic development for Air New Zealand. "Now ... I'd say it's within the next decade, and I'm hoping that if you ask me in another 12 months I can say it's certain within the next five years."


Agnew's airline is no armchair participant. ANZ is set to embark on a series of tests, probably this year, to determine how well jet fuel derived from plant feedstocks performs in a 747-400 powered by Rolls-Royce RB211s. What is making this possible is a breakthrough of sorts, one that addresses the prime impediment to the use of biofuels in aircraft (Virgin Atlantic and General Electric plan to conduct similar trials, although both companies turned down repeated requests from ATW to participate in this article).


"Until now," says Agnew, "the problem with alternate fuel is that at very, very low temperatures [it] doesn't flow as well out of the tank into the engine. The fuel just becomes very, very thick." No longer. "DARPA ... has completely eliminated that [problem]," contends Doug Kirkpatrick, program manager for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. …

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