New "Second-Generation" Biofuel Passes Airliner Test

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A fuel mix of 50/50 conventional Jet A1 and fuel derived from the seeds of the jatropha tree passed its first flight test this week, in an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400. The flight lasted about two hours and several tests were conducted, including shutting down and restarting the test engine. "All the parameters that we observed were as expected," said Air New Zealand chief pilot David Morgan. The engine will be taken apart and examined by Rolls Royce for signs of any problems. The fuel was refined and blended in the U.S. by UOP, a subsidiary of Honeywell, and has a freezing point even lower than standard jet fuel. It is considered a "second-generation" biofuel because it can be produced more sustainably than earlier alternative fuels based on corn or other crops that require a lot of farmland and energy to produce. The jatropha tree is easy to grow in a variety of conditions and it's resistant to drought and pests. It is native to Central America, but has spread to South America, Africa, and Asia, where it grows wild. "Today, we stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development and an important moment in aviation history," Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe said shortly after the flight. Officials from the airline have said they hope to supply 10 percent of the airline's fuel needs with biofuel by 2013.

Already, the government in India is using jatropha-based biofuel in buses and trucks, and has planted millions of acres of saplings along the nation's railroad tracks. Seeds from the tree's small round fruits contain up to 40 percent oil. Cost comparisons are difficult since the price of traditional oil is volatile and the jatropha fuel has not yet been produced on a commercial scale, but it is expected to be competitive. Biofuels emit about the same amount of carbon in flight as standard petroleum-based fuels, but since the plants absorb carbon as they grow, the biofuel is considered more environmentally friendly overall.