Virgin biofuel jumbo trials won't use algae

As UK.gov reviews food-powered fuel policy

Trials of biofuels for airliners will use conventional, controversial feedstocks, it has been reported. Virgin Atlantic and Boeing had hoped to employ so-called "second-generation" biofuel feedstocks such as algae which wouldn't threaten food production or biodiversity. The news comes as the UK government has announced a review of potential downsides to biofuel use.

Speaking to Flight International at the Singapore Air Show, Boeing environmental-tech exec Dave Daggett confirmed that the Virgin biofuel trials this year would use ordinary feedstocks. However, Virgin Atlantic representatives maintained that it still "could be algae".

Conventional or "first generation" biofuels are made from crops such as corn or palm oil, the production of which uses farmland which might otherwise feed people. If in future the human race were to begin using biofuels in the quantities that it currently uses fossil petroleum, huge amounts more cropland could be required - perhaps threatening already fast-disappearing rainforests. Even with a huge expansion of farming, food prices would be likely to rise and poor people could starve.

Such worries have badly tarnished the image of biofuels in recent years, leading to the new Whitehall review.

"The UK government takes this issue very seriously. We are not prepared to go beyond current UK target levels for biofuels until we are satisfied it can be done sustainably," said transport secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday.

The UK will still require all transport fuel to be 2.5 per cent biofuel from April, however.

So-called "second generation" biofuels might be derived from feedstocks such as saltwater algae, which would not appear to carry the same deforestation and food risks as regular types.

Shell, for instance, has recently kicked off a research programme into this kind of tech: and the US military, keen to be independent of unreliable Gulf oil producers, are also interested.

Boeing, Virgin and Air New Zealand plan to test 747s on biofuel blends this year. However, it appears likely that initially these will use the more controversial crop-based stuff rather than snazzier scum-sourced juice. ®

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