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Biofuel 2.0 gets off ground in Kiwi airliner trial

Oily desert nuts juice up righteous jumbo

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Air New Zealand has announced that its planned airliner biofuel test will be carried out using biodiesel made from jatropha nuts. Jatropha plants, able to survive in deserts, could offer a biofuel source which would not compete with food production or drive deforestation.

"Air New Zealand is absolutely committed to being at the forefront of testing environmentally sustainable fuels," said the airline's chief, Rob Fyfe, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The test will be carried out later this year, using a Boeing 747 with engines from Rolls Royce. Boeing has been at the forefront of an industry push toward alternative fuels since last year, following soaring rises in the price of ordinary fossil jet fuel.

Earlier tests have seen aircraft running without problems on synthetics made from natural gas and coal, and Virgin partnered with Boeing earlier this year to power a jumbo using coconut and palm oils.

All of these efforts have drawn criticism, however. Alternate fossil fuels, while they could offer some security of supply and price, have no ecological benefits - quite the reverse, actually, as a tonne of gas or coal is burned for every tonne converted into synthetic jet juice. First-generation biofuel sources like coconut and palm are usually seen as lower-carbon - though just how much is a subject of vigorous debate - but they are also implicated in rising food prices and deforestation. It has also been credibly suggested that in any case, there just isn't enough farmland to run much transport on first-gen crop biofuel.

So-called second generation biofuels like jatropha or algae which don't need good land are seen by many in the aviation industry as their best way ahead. The technical problems of alternative propulsion for planes are much more severe than in cars, meaning that options such as battery power, hydrogen and so on aren't seen as viable.

Thus the ANZ trial is sure to be watched with interest. The airline believes it would need plantations totalling 1.25 million hectares to run entirely on jatropha. In the case of first-gen biofuel, that would equate to about 85 per cent of New Zealand's arable land, but hardy jatropha might, for instance, be grown in the deserts of Australia. There are 1.4 million square kilometres of deserts in Oz, enough to fuel a hundred airlines the size of ANZ if they were all covered in jatropha plants. ®

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