Will Biofuels Revolutionise Aviation?

The Australian airline Qantas has had its first commercial flight using biofuel, or, more correctly, a combination of biofuel and regular aviation fuel. The reason is that airlines want to be carbon neutral by 2020. The biofuel which Qantas used for its flight was made from used cooking oil, and this is just one option that is being used worldwide to manufacture biofuels.

Apart from the altruistic reasons of wanting to lessen their carbon footprint and to help the skies stay cleaner, airlines are being hit extra taxes incurred by the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme in Europe and with other countries, such as Australia, introducing a Carbon Tax, which is solely targeted against perceived heavy polluters, including the airlines.

Another consideration is the rising cost of fossil fuels, which is now selling for well over US$100 per barrel and which will probably stay at those high levels. The fact that fossil fuels will become scarcer as they run out is another excellent reason for investing in the production of biofuels.

Many other airlines have flirted with the use of biofuels.

Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa and Etihad are just of the airlines which have had either test or actual commercial flights using various combinations of biofuels.

Apart from cooking oil, biofuels have also been refined using algae and the camelina plant, which is an oilseed that is related to flax. Qantas is even considering investing in making biofuels from sugar cane, as Australia is a major producer of sugar. Brazil is already a world leader in making biofuels out of sugar cane.

Two other plant sources being used are the jatropha, which is a succulent plant which will grow in area which have poor soils and which get little rainfall, and legumes and sorghum.

The most important reason why airlines do continue to test out biofuels is because they do not adversely affect aircraft performance, and may even be beneficial as biofuels don’t contain many of the harsh chemicals found in regular aviation fuels, which can increase wear and tear on engines.

No matter which type of biofuels are used, one big advantage is that production will not be controlled by a few countries, and land that is arid can be used to grow biofuels with more fertile land be used for food production.

As airlines do embrace biofuels to a much larger degree there will be many benefits for customers. The price of air travel will decline as fuel costs come down and pollution taxes are cut, and the skies will become much cleaner so that, eventually, flying will be an environmentally responsible way to travel.

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