Airline commits to biofuel

Air New Zealand has announced plans to use at least one million barrels of environmentally sustainable fuel a year by 2013. It will run a test flight using plant-derived fuel this year.

Chief executive officer Rob Fyfe said the airline is growing increasingly confident that commercial quantities of environmentally sustainable fuels that meet all the airline's stringent criteria will become available over the next few years.

"This fundamental shift in fuel options should be embraced by the industry," Fyfe added, "and we aim to see at least ten per cent of our total annual needs coming from environmentally sustainable fuels by 2013. Studies have already shown that sustainable fuels can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emissions with a 40-to-50 per cent lower carbon footprint on a life-cycle basis."

Air New Zealand's next step in leading the global pursuit of proving and commercializing sustainable fuels for use in air travel will be the world's first flight test on a large passenger aircraft using fuel sourced from the plant jatropha.

The Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 Rolls Royce powered test flight is expected to take place in Auckland in the last quarter of this year subject to final regulatory approvals and fuel testing by the engine manufacturer.

Jatropha is a plant that grows to approximately three metres high and produces seeds that contain an inedible lipid oil that is used to produce fuel. Each seed produces between 30 and 40 per cent of its mass in oil and jatropha can be grown in range of difficult conditions, including arid and non-arable areas.

Fyfe said Air New Zealand has been "non-negotiable" about the three criteria any environmentally sustainable fuel must meet for its test flight programme. These are social, technical and commercial.

"Firstly, it must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food stocks. Secondly, the fuel must be at least as good as the product we use today. Finally, it should be significantly cheaper than existing fuel supplies and be readily available."

The jatropha oil Air New Zealand is sourcing for refining for its test flight comes from South Eastern Africa (Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania) and India. It was sourced from seeds grown on environmentally sustainable plantations.

Air New Zealand's criteria for sourcing the jatropha oil was that the land was neither forest land nor virgin grassland within the previous two decades. The quality of the soil and climate is such that the land is not suitable for the vast majority of food crops. Furthermore, the plantations are rainfed and are not mechanically irrigated.

"Jatropha satisfies all our criteria and furthermore it is likely to be available in the necessary commercial quantities to meet our needs within five years. We have already had offers from organisations in Asia and Africa willing to guarantee enough supply to meet our 2013 target," says Fyfe.

"These present particularly exciting opportunities when placed against a backdrop of jet fuel prices that have recently been as high as US$174 and a cost for jatropha that is at least 20 to 30 per cent cheaper."

"The challenge in the next phase is to develop a robust supply chain model and we are quite open to working with likeminded partners, including the New Zealand Government, on the development of refinery and delivery opportunities."

Fyfe said that jatropha is unlikely to be the only fuel that Air New Zealand is involved in testing. "Algae presents some extremely exciting possibilities for the aviation industry," he commented. "Around the world hundreds of scientists are working to crack the process of turning it into commercial quantities of jet fuel."


Image: Jatropha can be converted into biofuel for aviation and also for the automotive industry [Daimler]

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