Biofuel Powers Jetliner

Air New Zealand has joined with Boeing, Rolls Royce, and Honeywell UOP to perform the world’s first commercial biofuel test flight. The test used a Boeing 747-400 with four Rolls Royce RB211 engines without making any physical modifications to the plane or engines. The two hour flight took place on December 30, 2008 and used a mix of traditional jet fuel and oil from the Jatropha Curcas plant (the oil powered one of four engines while the other three continued to use traditional fuels).
Fuel processing at Honeywell UOP (Credit: Air New Zealand)
Caption: Fuel processing at Honeywell UOP
(Credit: Air New Zealand)

The partners agreed that any biofuel program had to meet three criteria:

1) The fuel source must be biosustainable and not compete with food resources
2) The fuel must work as well as current jet fuel in existing engines without modification
3) The fuel should be plentiful and cost-effective compared to current jet fuel
The jatropha plant meets all threes criteria. The jatropha plants used in this fuel were grown on land unsuitable for the vast majority of food crops and watered through rainfall rather than mechanical watering and met several other specific requirements set out by the partners. An independent consultant verified that these requirements were met and sent the jatropha oil to Honeywell UOP to refine it into a state comparable to traditional jet fuel for use in the normal Rolls Royce engines. The refined fuel consists of a mix of one part jatropha oil and one part Jet A1 fuel. The refined fuel was tested by scientists at Rolls Royce and by the independent testing firm Intertek before its use in live flights.
Jatropha plant seed pods (Credit: Air New Zealand)
Jatropha plant seed pods
(Credit: Air New Zealand)

The two hour test flight reached a height of 35,000 feet and included several specific tests of the fuel at different altitudes. The test elements included a full thrust take off, a variety of climb power settings, engine acceleration tests, and in flight and ground shut down and restarting. The engine using the biofuel will be examined in detail and compared to the engines using petroleum-based fuel. The goal of the test was to confirm the new fuel’s specific gravity, efficiency, and economic value. Specific numbers and results have not been released at this time.

Air New Zealand hopes that 10% of its fuel consumption, or one million barrels per year, will consist of jatropha biofuel by 2013. British airline Virgin Atlantic is also experimenting with biofuels from a different source and other airlines are sure to follow if these tests are successful.
More information on the test flight plans can be found on the Air New Zealand website here. In addition, the airline has posted a detailed FAQ about the biofuel and its test plans here. A detailed flight plan including videos of several phases of the flight can be found here.

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