Sir Richard Branson today claimed aviation could be made “truly sustainable” at the launch of test flight fuelled in part by coconut oil. But the Virgin boss conceded that meaningful supplies of alternative fuel might not be available before the advent of peak oil, which he said could happen within six years.

Virgin Atlantic flew a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam with one of the four engines powered by a mixture of 80% conventional jet fuel and 20% biofuel. The biofuel was supplied by Imperium Renewables of Seattle, and made from the oil of coconuts from the Philippines and babassu nuts from Brazil. Because the nuts came from mature plantations or were harvested from rainforest, Virgin and its partners, including Boeing and GE, insisted the fuel does not compete with “staple food” production or contribute to deforestation.

©David Strahan

The test flight was intended to prove that the biojetfuel could perform as well as conventional fuel at the freezing temperatures encountered at altitude. Although the biofuel formed just 5% of the aircraft’s total fuel, the partners have ground-tested a blend containing 40% biofuel. John Plaza, president and CEO of Imperium, held out the prospect of the entire aviation industry running solely on biofuel in the future, but both he and Sir Richard stressed that the feedstock would not be coconuts, but next generation sources such as jatropha or algae.

Jatropha is a hardy bush that grows in the tropics and subtropics which produces oily nuts that can then be processed to produce biofuel. Because it can grow on relatively poor land jatropha need not compete with food production. However the amount of land that would be required to replace the world’s jetfuel consumption is prodigious.

Aviation currently consumes 5 million barrels of jetfuel per day, or 238 million tonnes per year. Even with relatively generous assumptions about yield – say 2 tonnes of jatropha oil per hectare – replacing that would take almost 1.2 million square kilometres. To put this in context, D1 Oils, the British company pioneering biofuel from jatropha, plans to plant 10,000 square kilometres over the next four years.

When raised this issue at a press conference held in Virgin’s hangar at Heathrow, Sir Richard did not attempt to explain where so much land might be found, but did reveal that peak oil was part of the motivation for developing biojetfuel: “Apart from global warming, in about four or five years’ time there’s going to be more demand for fuel than there is fuel on this planet. So fuel prices will go through the roof, and so planes, ships, we’ve all got to come up with alternatives”.

Sir Richard also said that the most promising source of biojetfuel in future would be algae, which can be grown on non-productive land in ponds of seawater. Algae looks likely to be far more productive than first generation biofuels, but here too the actual yields are controversial.

Boeing claims that an acre of pond could produce between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of fuel per year, meaning that current global jetfuel consumption could be supplied from a land area roughly equivalent to Belgium.

However, Dr Ami Ben Amotz, senior scientist at Israel’s National Institute of Oceanography, who has been producing algae commercially for twenty years, is deeply skeptical. He maintains that for technical reasons the maximum practical output will be about 4,300 tonnes per acre, meaning that replacing current global jetfuel consumption would take a land area almost 2 ½ times the size of Belgium. Aviation demand is forecast to grow massively over the next few decades.

Sir Richard later told that algae might provide enough fuel for the entire global aviation industry, and that such technological breakthroughs represented the only chance of avoiding peak oil – which otherwise might come within six years. Asked if jatropha or algae could be ready in so short a time he conceded this was a good question, and concluded that “we have to try our best to make them available as fast as we possibly can”.


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