Rise of the green machine
5:00AM Saturday February 09, 2008
By Grant Bradley
When a Virgin Atlantic jumbo makes a planned 1 hour and 20 minutes hop
from London to Amsterdam later this month it will be one of the most
closely analysed flights in aviation history.
The journey, without passengers, could answer the aviation industry's
prayers, as it will be powered by a a mix of 20 per cent of a so-far
secret biofuel and 80 per cent conventional jet fuel.
Work on converting an aircraft to run on biofuel has been done in
earnest for the past three years, and Virgin hopes that biofuel-powered
aircraft could be operating commercially within five years - if the fuel
works at high altitudes and is compatible with delivery infrastructure.
The planned Virgin flight is not the only entrant in the race to test
green fuel - Air New Zealand is part of a separate joint project with
Boeing and Rolls Royce to develop an environmentally-friendly alternative.
For all the world's airlines, the test offers hope on two fronts:
perception and the bottom line.
An active green movement is scrutinising every gram of polluting carbon
dioxide that airliners produce. And it's also about survival, with the
high cost of oil already claiming weaker, niche airlines.
International Air Transport Association figures show the spike in fuel
charges will add US$14 billion to the industry fuel bill this year, to
US$149 billion, based on an average price of US$78 per barrel.
At present air travel contributes 2 per cent to 3 per cent of
climate-change gases, but that level is increasing.
The industry is investing in lighter aircraft and new engines that are
claimed to be as fuel efficient as a family car, given the number of
passengers they carry, but biofuels could minimise dependence on oil.
In Europe in particular airlines are battling green groups which say no
matter how fuel efficient planes become, the more air travel, the more
And while the the impact of carbon emissions is well known, there is
uncertainty about the effect on global warming of oxides of nitrogen and
vapour trails, known as contrails, at high altitudes.
Virgin has been working with Boeing and General Electric to create
hybrid aircraft, similar to the cleaner fuel concept for hybrid cars.
Neither the aircraft nor its engine will need to be modified to use the
Virgin will outline what fuel is being used at the time of the test
flight, likely to be later this month.
The airline has declined to comment on whether the "green" fuel will be
made with algae, something that Boeing is testing, but says the fuel
will be sustainable and is a product that will not displace food crops.
Of all airlines, the need to be green is most pressing for Air New
Zealand, where fuel costs account for more than half of all expenses on
Research by the University of Otago released earlier this month showed
carbon emissions from visitors' air travel to New Zealand equalled total
emissions from the country's coal, gas and oil-fired power generation.
Unlike other airlines, where guaranteed revenue comes from business
travellers, Air New Zealand relies on leisure travellers for around
two-thirds of its revenue. Many of this group would look for the
greenest carrier, or worse still, not come to New Zealand at all.
Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe has been warning of that risk
for the past two years.
"If you're living in Europe you can do a lot of the things you travel to
New Zealand to do on your doorstep," he says.
But he sees an opportunity for this country, and by extension, his airline.
"If we ... can stand up and say we as a nation are going to make a
difference in terms of climate change, then there's the opportunity to
create a point of difference."
This could extend to biofuel development, more sustainable pastoral
farming, or work on technology to create clean-burning coal.
"We quite genuinely believe visitors will be attracted to New Zealand in
an eco-environmental context and we see that is quite a legitimate and
genuine motivation to drive our visitor numbers and tourism here."
Air New Zealand is aiming to becomethe greenest long-haul airline in the
The airline uses around eight million barrels of jet fuel a year which
costs around 20 per cent more than quoted crude prices, so the economic
imperative is strong.
"By maximising our commercial interests we're maximising the
environmental benefit - they're totally aligned."
Some have described the green push as a fad, but Fyfe says passengers
have told the airline they want to fly on a carrier that demonstrates it
is taking an environmentally responsible approach.
"I have no doubt that people will pay a premium to fly in an
environmentally considerate way - I think this is a way to create a
value-added product or service for our customers."
While the airline is likely to be beaten to the considerable publicity
of being first to fly on green gas, he says work on the biofuel project
in conjunction with Boeing and Rolls Royce is making good progress.
It is hoped to have an Air New Zealand Boeing 747 airborne with one of
its four engines isolated to run on biofuel by the end of the year.
Computer modelling work was being done at Boeing's Seattle base.
Much of the research was concentrated on an oilseed crop, jatropha, a
woody plant that can grow on barren, marginal land; and algae, high in
oil content and able to grow on sewage ponds and in seawater.
A Nelson-based firm, Aquaflow, which already has algae-based biodiesel
for land vehicles in production, says it has been visited by Boeing
representatives working on alternative jet-fuel projects.
Fyfe says Air New Zealand will run an engine in a test bed at the
airline's Auckland engineering base before flight tests.
While an enthusiast, he is cautious. There were freezing-point problems
to overcome - some biofuels gel at extremely low temperatures - and
uncertainty about how corrosive alternative fuel is.
"Ultimately you need to have confidence you have a fuel which can use
the existing fuel movement infrastructure such as pipelines and tankers.
If you have to recreate that infrastructure, the hurdle becomes very high."
Air New Zealand has yet to take the plunge into one visible plank of the
airline industry's green push - passengers voluntarily buying carbon
But it aims to follow the trend this year.
"We've found for a lot of people it doesn't really cut the mustard. They
sit there and say 'if I fly on this aircraft that creates an emission or
carbon footprint, paying money into something doesn't really make my
guilt go away'.
"As a consequence these voluntary offset schemes have been spectacularly
unsuccessful - maybe 1 or 2 per cent of passengers contribute," Fyfe says.
"We will introduce an offset scheme if that's what passengers want - but
we're looking to do something cleverer - can we allow our people to
invest in something that has a more tangible benefit that they can
This could be the creation of a forest or conservation estate.
"We would give you the opportunity to donate funds and visit that estate
as part of your visit to New Zealand."
But it's incremental work that is already making a difference for Air
In a decision that "wasn't universally popular", footrests have been
taken from the economy section of transpacific 747s, saving a tonne in
weight and about 500 litres of fuel on an Auckland-Los Angeles flight.
Cockpit paperwork is now in electronic form, engines more regularly
washed with a citrus-based cleaner are up to 3 per cent more efficient,
and agreements with Chinese and Russian authorities have shaved 30
minutes off flights over those countries.
And then there's the new planes. Boeing's next airliner, the 787 of
which Air New Zealand has eight on order, is expected to use 20 per cent
less fuel and be 60 per cent quieter than the 767 model it replaces.
Cathay Pacific announced a voluntary carbon offset scheme late last year
where passengers are effectively supporting a Chinese wind farm. The
airline's New Zealand manager, David Figgins, says emissions are a fact
of life, but it was impossible to restrict aviation.
"Originally, fuel saving was driven by economics before the issue of
global warming raised its head, but now it's becoming the issue of how
we keep this thing going in the meantime."
Pacific Blue allows travellers to voluntarily offset flights from 50c
per domestic sector and from $3 per international sector, to support a
Palmerston North renewable energy project where landfill methane gas is
captured and used to generate electricity.
Board of Airlines Representatives director Stewart Milne says carbon
mitigation programmes with the associated feel good factor just
encourage more to fly.
"No matter how efficient planes are, how many trees are planted per
sector there's no escaping the fact aviation pollutes and will continue
to do so."
Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts: http://pacbiofuel.blogspot.com/