Boeing, Air NZ set date for biofuel testing

Air NZ 747-400.

Air NZ 747-400.

The first-ever commercial aviation flight powered by a sustainable second-generation biofuel will take off from Auckland on December 3.

Boeing and Air New Zealand have announced the date for the test flight, which will see one of an Air NZ 747-400’s four engines running on the biofuel extracted from the plant jatropha.

The unprecedented project follows the establishment of Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group in September, where the world’s leading airlines and aviation bodies joined forces to push harder for the development and commercialisation of biofuels in aviation.

The pre-test stage of the project involved securing sustainable jatropha in adequate quantities to convert the plant oil to biojet fuel, bringing together Boeing, Air NZ, Rolls-Royce, UOP, a Honeywell company and Terasol Energy.

Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe said the flight formed part of the company’s initiative to be the world’s most environmentally responsible airline.

“We recently demonstrated the fuel and environmental gains that can be achieved through advanced operational procedures using Boeing 777s,” Mr Fyfe said.

“Introducing a new generation of sustainable fuels is the next logical step in our efforts to further save fuel and reduce aircraft emissions.”

Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy Billy Glover said the preparation period already achieved the project’s near-term goal of identifying and sourcing the first large-scale run of sustainable biofuel for commercial aviation.

“This processing technology exists today, and based on results we’ve seen, it’s highly encouraging that this fuel not only met but exceeded three key criteria for the next generation of jet fuel: higher than expected jut fuel yields, very low freeze point and good energy density,” Mr Glover said.

“That tells us we’re on the right path to certification and commercial availability.”

The participants have been non-negotiable about social, technical and commercial criteria that any biofuel must meet for the test flight program.

The jatropha oil was sourced from seeds grown on environmentally sustainable farms in South Eastern Africa and India.

The plant grows up to three metres high and produces seeds that contain inedible lipid oil. Each seed produces between 30 to 40 per cent of its mass in oil and can be grown in both arid and non-arable areas, preserving prime areas available for food crops.

Project developer Terasol Energy sourced and certified that the jatropha-based fuel for the flight met all sustainability criteria, and the received oil was then refined through a collaborative effort between Air NZ, Boeing and refining technology firm UOP.

As part of the fuel verification process, UK-based engine maker Rolls-Royce conducted extensive testing to ensure compatibility with today’s jet engine and to validate the fuel satisfies stringent performance criteria for aviation fuel.

“Laboratory testing showed the final blend had excellent properties, meeting and in many cases exceeding the stringent technical requirements for fuels used in civil and defence aircraft,” Chris Lewis of Rolls-Royce said.

“The blended fuel meets the essential requirement of being a ‘drop-in’ fuel, meaning its properties will be virtually indistinguishable from conventional fuel, Jet A1, which is used in commercial aviation today.”

The industry is aiming to source and commercialise plant-based fuels that perform as well as, or better than, kerosene-based fuel but with a smaller carbon lifecycle.

It wants to create a portfolio of next-generation biofuels that can be blended with traditional kerosene fuel (Jet A) to lift environmental performance. 

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