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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

Green flights of fancy?

Impossible collisions and heady, if expensive, outcomes for travellers. The future of biofuel flights is closer than you think.


Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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commercial biofuel flights, Lufthansa A321
Lufthansa A321: first airline with commercial biofuel flights

AS THE US$5bn LARGE Hadron Collider in Switzerland came ever closer to discovering the Higgs boson "God particle" that reveals the mysteries of creation right after the Big Bang, the world raced to another New Year with mankind – fired up on eggnog and cheap US$10 plonk – feverishly in search of a Big bosom to collide with to do its part in less scientific, and largely accidental, procreation. It was 8am on a winter morning when I discovered the God particle. It was on my blazer lapel. I examined it with mounting excitement. There was more. Having suffered no eggnog-fuelled collisions in quite a while, I was intrigued. Dandruff is remarkable but my lady friends refuse to be impressed.

Today, pilots and passengers, energy conservationists and engineers, are preoccupied with a different sort of particle – jet fuel particulate emission. Europe’s highest court has backed an EU law to impose a carbon emission tax on all flights into Europe, provoking howls of protest from IATA and airlines. Yet, despite the inconvenience of added expense, this is an irrevocable step in the right direction. The cost to the planet from airborne pollutants is far dearer than the cost to any executive wallet. Travel with a conscience must come to the fore. As hydrocarbon reserves dry up and the hunt for fossil fuels gets deeper and ever more costly, attention has turned to alternative and cleaner sources of power.

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When the gargantuan new B747-8 freighter arrived at the Paris Air Show 20 June, 2011, it was the first commercial transatlantic flight powered on a mix of 15 percent biofuel demonstrating that while McDonalds leads the charge towards global obesity, its leftover cooking oils and grease may be put to a better use – saving the ozone layer – so that all earthlings, mega and mini alike, can get a healthy tan for a change instead of going up in smoke on the beach.

The US Navy plans to set up an aircraft carrier strike force with ships run on alternative fuels that by 2016 will be referred to as the Great Green Fleet. Think nuclear energy, electric engines, biofuels and R&R at Kentucky Fried Chicken with the colonel himself becoming a major player in the Great Grease Game. Who knows what damage an eggplant fired from a 100mm naval gun can do? I still wouldn't eat it though millions could be forced to accommodate a harsh but healthy veggie diet as high-velocity carrots and peas rained on freedom loving people everywhere from Somalia to North Korea.

It was Virgin Atlantic that set the ball rolling on 24 February, 2008, with a B747 hop across the channel from London Heathrow to Schiphol with one engine running on a 20 percent mix of biofuel. Irrepressible Virgin boss Richard Branson then teamed up with New Zealand’s LanzaTech, a company usefully tinkering with technology to convert carbon monoxide waste gas from aluminium, steel and other industrial plants into ethanol. This alchemy could have a profound effect on travel. Branson believes that just applying the technology to steel mills alone could produce around 15 billion gallons of high-grade jet fuel each year, or 20 percent of all consumption. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific sees a profitable future for biofuels as Euro zone taxes begin to bite and current high prices eventually settle with increased production.

The first airline to run commercial biofuel flights was Lufthansa, which carried out tests to compare blends during the second half of 2011.

On 21 December, 2011, THAI ran a feel-good biofuel boondoggle and its first revenue flight – a landmark for Asia – lifted off the next day from Bangkok bound for Chiang Mai

In November 2011 Alaska Airlines and its regional subsidiary Horizon Air launched scheduled commercial B737 flights with a 20 percent mix of biofuel derived from cooking oil waste with 10 percent less carbon dioxide emissions. They were pipped at the post however by Continental (now United), which just a couple of days earlier flew a B737-800 into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport using a 40 percent biofuel mix derived from algae thus earning the distinction of becoming the first revenue passenger flight of its ilk in the USA. Conveniently, the genetically modified algae feed on waste from plants and convert it all into usable oil. Airlines have jumped on the biofuel bandwagon with alacrity, each one hoping to become the poster boy of Next Gen green aspirations.

Asia has not lagged behind. In November 2011, Air China carried out a two-hour flight from Beijing with a biofuel mix. On 21 December, 2011, THAI Airways International ran a feel-good biofuel boondoggle for media and industry heavies and its first revenue flight – a landmark for Asia – lifted off the next day from Bangkok bound for Chiang Mai. Qantas joins the green league in 2012.

While it is permissible for airlines to run a 50:50 mix of regular jet fuel and biofuel, the prohibitive cost of alternatives has led to overly cautious experiments with few daring to crossing the 20 percent limit. Alaska Airline used recycled cooking oil at a cost of about US$17 per gallon (3.78 litres). This compares with prices for normal aviation fuel that fluctuate between US$3 and US$5 per gallon depending on the airport and country. That’s a substantial gap.

While the ozone layer awaits rescue, green groups are up in arms arguing biofuels compete with farmland, a dangerous equation as world hunger increases. As US demand for ethanol source crops climbs, pristine rainforests and grasslands too are under pressure to cross over to soy, switchgrass and corn, liberating ever more unwelcome carbon. On the bright side, the dominant rice, palm, and sugar industries in Southeast Asia leave as much as 75 percent of the biomass waste unutilised or left to be burnt. This biomass is a rich energy source waiting to be tapped. India and China are increasingly turning to the jatropha plant seed for oil. In India, jatropha oil is often used directly in diesel generators without undergoing any refining process. Jatropha does not compete with agricultural land or deprive hungry mouths. At the same time it mops up carbon dioxide, aids in soil conservation, grows in marginal non-cultivable land, and provides a handy source of rural income.

All this is far removed from an aircraft seat 30,000ft aloft. But it helps to look down. Clean that stuff on your collar, people.

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