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Algae-fuelled* airliner test successful

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Update The world's first test of a passenger airliner partially powered by fuel made from algae took place successfully yesterday in Texas.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the jet, an unmodified Boeing 737-800 operated by US carrier Continental Airlines, took off from Bush Intercontinental airport in Houston at 1218 local time. After a series of manoeuvres over the Gulf of Mexico, including a midair engine shutdown and restart, the airliner returned to land without incident at 1345.

“The airplane performed perfectly,” test pilot Rich Jankowski told the Chronicle. “There were no problems. It was textbook.”

The 737 reportedly burned 3,600lb of biofuel mixed 50-50 with normal fossil jetfuel in one engine, and 3,700lb of regular juice in the other. According to Jankowski, this indicated that the test fuel was actually more efficient than normal supplies.

The biofuel component of the plane's fuel load was derived partly from Jatropha nuts and partly from algae. Jatropha plants are able to grow in arid regions not suitable for normal crops, and algae can grow on water surfaces. This means that both have the potential to be what the airline industry calls "second generation" or sustainable biofuels, which wouldn't put pressure on finite resources of farmland used for food and/or drive deforestation.

Air New Zealand carried out a test using jatropha fuel last month, but yesterday's flight was the first to use algae, seen by many in the airline industry as a primary way out of the problems posed by carbon levies and historically high fuel prices. The Continental test was also the first time that a twin-engine passenger jet has flown on biofuel. Thus far, the extra reassurance of having three engines running on old-school juice has been preferred.

“This is really kind of a landmark,” said Jankowski.

The Chronicle report can be read here. ®

Update

*It appears that in fact calling this an "algae fuelled" test was a little bit cheeky of Continental and Boeing. Flight International reports in passing that the biofuel used to provide 50 per cent of one engine's fuel was almost entirely from Jatropha feedstock (47.5 of that 50 per cent being jatropha, meaning that algae provided just 2.5 per cent of the plane's fuel).

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