Bearded biz kingpin Richard Branson oversaw a successful trial of a Virgin 747 partially powered by biofuel blends yesterday, but was forced to admit that the fuel used on this occasion probably couldn't offer a clean green future for airlines.
As had been anticipated, the joint trial by Boeing and Virgin on Sunday saw a jumbo jet take to the sky partially running on so-called "first generation" biofuel, in this case derived from coconuts grown in the Philippines and babassu palm oil. Babassu palms grow wild in Brazil, so this type of palm oil is seen as eco-friendlier than most.
"Today marks a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry," Branson told reporters at Heathrow yesterday.
"Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, are proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel."
Nonetheless, the ultimate source of the synthetic jet fuel used on Sunday was fertile land. Running any significant proportion of the world transport fleet on such fuel would require a massive expansion in cultivation, threatening the world's remaining rainforests and in all likelihood driving up food prices so as to starve the world's poor. The fuel crops could potentially act as a carbon sink while being grown, counterbalancing the emissions from their use, but even this benefit has lately had doubts cast on it - the more so as large amounts of energy are normally required to turn crops into useable juice.
Branson admitted that the fuel used in yesterday's trial would not go commercial, but said that he is fully committed to the idea of "second generation" biofuel for airlines.
"This pioneering flight will enable... fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae," he said.
Algae is probably the great white hope for the badly-tarnished biofuel idea. The plan would be to make biofuels from algae grown in water - ideally, saltwater. This would mean no requirement for fertile land, and thus no need to compete for existing farm capacity or create more by destroying forests. However, algae-based fuel is a technology which remains to be proven - and again, there are those who doubt its ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere. Many algae biochemistries would actually require fresh water, too, rather than salt - and fresh water is already increasingly seen as a precious resource. (Fresh water can actually be made easily out of abundant seawater, but this - again - requires large amounts of power.)
Yesterday's trial demonstrates that Virgin, Boeing, GE (makers of the Virgin jet's engines) and their tech partners are all quite serious about finding an alternative to fossil fuel. This seriousness is probably motivated by current oil prices at least as much as it is by climate concerns, but it does seem to be real. Another test with an Air New Zealand jumbo using Rolls Royce engines will take place later this year.
However, the same old dynamics of every green-technology issue are present. A shift away from the stored power of fossil fuel tends to mean a need for power somewhere else - in the biofuel plant, in the desalinators to produce fresh water for the algae ponds.
It would, theoretically, be really great if new saltwater algae tech could effectively turn vast tracts of sea into mighty solar collectors, storing power in handy jetfuel form even as they sucked carbon out of the atmosphere. But nobody's really even offering this sort of thing yet. And hundred-mile burgeoning slicks of genetically-modified green scum do seem, in some lights at least, a bit more like ecological disaster than ecological salvation.®