US airline Continental says it will carry out "the first biofuel flight by a commercial carrier using algae as a fuel source" tomorrow. Previous airliner biofuel trials have used controversial "first-generation" feedstocks, seen as contributing to world hunger and deforestation, apart from a recent New Zealand test involving jatropha nuts.
Continental says the flight will occur at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, at 1115 AM local time tomorrow. The aircraft in question will be a Boeing 737-800 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines, and the biofuel mix used will be sourced from feedstocks including jatropha and algae.
Continental say that this means the test will draw only on "sustainable, second-generation fuel sources that do not impact food crops or water resources, and do not contribute to deforestation". In addition to airline execs, the event will be attended by Billy Glover, Boeing's managing director in charge of environmental strategy.
First-generation biofuels made from feedstocks such as corn or palm oil have come in for sustained criticism lately. It has been suggested that these fuels displace food production from farmland, driving up food prices and so causing hardship among the poor. The resulting desire for more farmland is also seen as contributing to deforestation.
Convincing analysis has also suggested that developed nations - or those wishing to become developed one day - will simply never have enough arable land to fuel any significant proportion of their transport using crop fuels.
This has led to the push for "second-generation" biofuels, ones not requiring the use of good farmland for production. Thus far the main candidate here has been oil from the jatropha nut, which might perhaps be cultivated in unused arid deserts not suitable for food production. A recent test by Air New Zealand has shown that jumbo jets will run on a 50-50 jatropha and normal jetfuel mix, but as yet there are not well-established large scale sources of the oily nuts and many are sceptical regarding the viability of the idea.
The other headliner gen-2.0 biofuel feedstock is algae, which might be grown in large amounts on water surfaces - perhaps even on saltwater, avoiding the need to exploit possibly overstressed freshwater resources. To many in the avaiation industry of recent times, algae has been something of a holy grail - offering a way to avoid the high fuel prices seen last year and a possible get-out from tough carbon pricing regimes planned by such bodies as the European Union. Biofuel is one of the few technically feasible low-carbon avenues open to aviation: such options as hydrogen fuel and electric power would be hugely harder to use on aircraft than they are to implement in road vehicles.
All of which means that tomorrow's test by Continental should generate a good deal of interest - although the firm hasn't yet offered details of its algae feedstock, nor of how much of the fuel it provides. It is understood that the biofuel is provided by Honeywell subsidiary UOP, which is working on second-generation biojetfuel as part of the Airbus Initiative, and which has a US military contract aimed at renewable, securely sourced JP-8. ®