Monday, 4 May 2009

Feeding the fuel tanks

Biofuels are already in use mixed with petrol to power cars and trucks, and have come under scrutiny for competing with land for food and contributing to the food crisis, with the number of hungry people rising to 1 billion. Now, there is fast paced development of biofuels for aviation fuel. There are claims that these are ‘second generation’ crops which do not compete with food supplies, unlike the corn, palm and sugar cane which form the majority of biofuels currently in use. The biofuel blends that have been used for recent test flights show that this claim does live up to scrutiny.

Virgin Atlantic’s test flight in 2008 used biofuel made from coconuts, and babassu nuts – a type of palm oil used for cooking oil. Just twenty per cent biofuel in one of the plane’s four engines used 150,000 coconuts for a short-haul flight from London to Amsterdam. If coconuts are developed for mainstream use as aviation fuel, millions of coconuts would be burned up in a single long haul flight.

In January 2009 other airlines began test flights using a proportion of biofuels blended with conventional kerosene. Japan Airlines’ biofuel test flight used 84 per cent camelina oil, sixteen per cent jatropha and one per cent algae in a 50 per cent biofuel mix in one of a Boeing 474’s four engines. Camelina is also known as false flax and is highly nutritious being rich in essential fatty acids, used for cooking oil and also as chicken feed. Japan Airlines claimed that growing camelina as a biofuel crop does not compete with food crops, as it can be grown in rotation with other crops when the land might otherwise be fallow. This is a theoretical scenario and camelina is still as crop that could be used to feed people.

Air New Zealand’s two hour test flight used a 50 per cent blend of jatropha in one of a 747’s four engines. Jatropha is an inedible plant with black berries yielding up to 40 per cent oil. Chief Executive, Rob Fyfe anticipates that jatropha could provide about ten per cent of the airlines’ fuel, about a million barrels of 160 million litres, by 2013. This would require about 84,000 hectares of land to be planted with jatropha.

Jatropha is being hailed as a potential sustainable biofuel for aviation, as it can grow on marginal, dry land and not compete with food crops. A report, Jatropha: the myth of the new wonder plant, from Alliance Sud raises concerns that jatropha plantations are displacing food crops. The Indian government plans to plant 11 million hectares with jatropha by 2012, and some of the land that has already been planted was previously used by smallholders for crops like rice. In Africa, land has been allocated for jatropha on the most fertile land in Tanzania, displacing rice, maize and cassava crops, and while much of Ethiopia is drought ridden, jatropha is being grown in some of the areas benefitting from the most rainfall.

Continental Airlines biofuel test flights, in Houston and Quito in Ecuador, used a biofuel mix of 47.5 per cent jatropha and 2.5 per cent algae blended with 50 per cent kerosene in one of a Boeing 737’s two engines. The airlines have emphasised the use of algae in the test flights, it is even being called a ‘third generation biofuel’ which could be grown in water, so not raise any ‘land-take’ concerns. In reality, only minute proportions of algae have been used in test flights, just 2.5 per cent in the Continental Airlines biofuel mix, and one per cent in Japan Airlines engines. Regarding future use of algae as aviation fuel, development programmes have not figured out how to produce it on a mass scale, and a Biofuelwatch report Biofuels for Aviation, reveals that the Carbon Trust estimates that algae-based fuel will not be not commercially available until 2020.

Air France, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS and Virgin Atlantic Airways have formed a consortium with Boeing, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group aiming to use biofuels to partially replace fossil fuels, by 2013. With the worsening food crisis we need to use land to feed people, not planes.


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