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It was the last of four demonstration flights that have taken place over the past year in four corners of the world, all using four different blends of biofuels, powering four makes of engines.
The purpose of the flights is to determine whether a modern jet liner can safely fly with some of its fuel made of renewable energy. The high cost of fossil fuel and its environmental impact are pushing the airlines to explore alternatives.
Aviation currently contributes about 3 percent of global carbon emissions, but air travel is growing. And there's a climate change factor that paying passengers are taking note of: jet aircraft do not just give off carbon dioxide but nitrous oxide – which some scientists calculate will have at least double the impact of CO2 – and condensation trails, which also may contribute to global warming.
On landing Capt. Keiji Kobayashi said that the performance of the biofueled engine seemed indistinguishable from the other three engines. That echoed reports from the three previous flights and is exactly what promoters of sustainable aviation fuels want to hear.
The goal, said Jennifer Holmgren, director of renewable resources and chemicals for Honeywell UOP, is to develop a “drop-in” generic biofuel. By drop-in she means a fuel that requires no engine modifications and is chemically identical to ordinary jet fuel. It can be used as economic conditions dictate.
Nicole Piasecki, president of Boeing Japan, said before the JAL test flight that her company hoped to have biofuel certified for use on “revenue-generating flights” in three to four years.
The JAL test used a blend of 84 percent camelina oil, 16 percent jatropha oil, and less than 1 percent algae oil. The three biofuels were mixed 50-50 with kerosene in one of the aircraft’s four engines. It was the first demonstration flight using camelina oil and the first one to use a blend of three different biofuels.
Camelina is a vegetable oil crop grown mostly in the northern plains of the US and western Canada. It is technically a “traditional” vegetable oil crop but is considered a second-generation biofuel as it has little food value and is used primarily as a biofuel feedstock.