Feeds

Virgin exhibits coconut-powered flying jumbo

Scum-nourished flight a Vulture-only trick for now

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Bearded biz kingpin Richard Branson oversaw a successful trial of a Virgin 747 partially powered by biofuel blends yesterday, but was forced to admit that the fuel used on this occasion probably couldn't offer a clean green future for airlines.

As had been anticipated, the joint trial by Boeing and Virgin on Sunday saw a jumbo jet take to the sky partially running on so-called "first generation" biofuel, in this case derived from coconuts grown in the Philippines and babassu palm oil. Babassu palms grow wild in Brazil, so this type of palm oil is seen as eco-friendlier than most.

"Today marks a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry," Branson told reporters at Heathrow yesterday.

"Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, are proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel."

Nonetheless, the ultimate source of the synthetic jet fuel used on Sunday was fertile land. Running any significant proportion of the world transport fleet on such fuel would require a massive expansion in cultivation, threatening the world's remaining rainforests and in all likelihood driving up food prices so as to starve the world's poor. The fuel crops could potentially act as a carbon sink while being grown, counterbalancing the emissions from their use, but even this benefit has lately had doubts cast on it - the more so as large amounts of energy are normally required to turn crops into useable juice.

Branson admitted that the fuel used in yesterday's trial would not go commercial, but said that he is fully committed to the idea of "second generation" biofuel for airlines.

"This pioneering flight will enable... fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae," he said.

Algae is probably the great white hope for the badly-tarnished biofuel idea. The plan would be to make biofuels from algae grown in water - ideally, saltwater. This would mean no requirement for fertile land, and thus no need to compete for existing farm capacity or create more by destroying forests. However, algae-based fuel is a technology which remains to be proven - and again, there are those who doubt its ability to draw carbon from the atmosphere. Many algae biochemistries would actually require fresh water, too, rather than salt - and fresh water is already increasingly seen as a precious resource. (Fresh water can actually be made easily out of abundant seawater, but this - again - requires large amounts of power.)

Yesterday's trial demonstrates that Virgin, Boeing, GE (makers of the Virgin jet's engines) and their tech partners are all quite serious about finding an alternative to fossil fuel. This seriousness is probably motivated by current oil prices at least as much as it is by climate concerns, but it does seem to be real. Another test with an Air New Zealand jumbo using Rolls Royce engines will take place later this year.

However, the same old dynamics of every green-technology issue are present. A shift away from the stored power of fossil fuel tends to mean a need for power somewhere else - in the biofuel plant, in the desalinators to produce fresh water for the algae ponds.

It would, theoretically, be really great if new saltwater algae tech could effectively turn vast tracts of sea into mighty solar collectors, storing power in handy jetfuel form even as they sucked carbon out of the atmosphere. But nobody's really even offering this sort of thing yet. And hundred-mile burgeoning slicks of genetically-modified green scum do seem, in some lights at least, a bit more like ecological disaster than ecological salvation.®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
NASA rover Curiosity drills HOLE in MARS 'GOLF COURSE'
Joins 'traffic light' and perfect stony sphere on the Red Planet
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
Relive the death of Earth over and over again in Extinction Game
Apocalypse now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ...
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.