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A380 superjumbo in natural-gas powered test flight

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The world's largest passenger airliner, the Airbus A380, has successfully made a test flight using synthetic jet fuel partly made from natural gas. The test is the latest step in moves by airliner builders and operators to diversify the sources of their fuel supplies.

Reuters reports that the monster double-decker superjumbo flew from the Airbus company facility at Filton near Bristol to Toulouse in France, the aircraft's main manufacturing base. The plane, which needed no modifications to use the new fuel, ran on a blend of 60 per cent regular jet fuel and 40 synthetic.

The synthetic fuel was made in Malaysia using the so-called "Gas To Liquid" (GTL) process, analogous to the Fischer-Tropsch method used to make fuel from coal. GTL is still fossil fuel, but its availability allows airlines to buy from a wider range of suppliers. With volatile Gulf-area politics having such a serious effect on world oil supplies, this is seen as well worthwhile by industry titans such as Airbus and its great rival Boeing. The US Air Force, too, is working hard to shake off its current dependence on crude, too.

In future if now right now, there might be some prospect of carbon reductions. Airbus' Sebastien Remy told Reuters that the company is "preparing for (the) emergence of a wider slate of synthetic fuels". He said that Airbus would like to run its jets on biomass feedstocks rather than fossil ones in future, though it is keen to avoid the controversial use of food crops.

That mirrors Boeing's stated plans, and chimes with a recent decision by Shell to take another look at saltwater algae as a fuel feedstock.

Meanwhile, Remy predicted that Qatar Airways might be the first airline to use natural-gas GTL fuel in A380s. Qatar has huge reserves of gas, and plans to build a GTL plant in partnership with Shell by 2011. The national carrier will get its first A380 in 2009. ®

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