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Apr 13, 2012

Qantas burns the cooking oil to keep its green cred alive

Despite the wisecracks about ‘cheap as chips’ today’s Qantas demonstration flight from Sydney to Adelaide and back using biofuel derived from cooking oil  is important and benefi

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Despite the wisecracks about ‘cheap as chips’ today’s Qantas demonstration flight from Sydney to Adelaide and back using biofuel derived from cooking oil  is important and beneficial.

It also keeps alive the green credibility Qantas has earned at a time when its plans for an investment with US firms Solena and Solyzene for aviation fuel making plants in this country based on recycled waste and algal products appear to be slowing down.

In the statement released just before the Qantas A330 left for Adelaide there was no mention of what for the airline had been a high profile venture with Solena.

That’s as clear a sign of any of a problem.

However today’s flight reaffirms the Qantas commitment to non-fossil-carbon releasing alternative pathways to producing what remains so far as engines and fuel pumps are concerned, a liquid indistinguishable in power and handling characteristics to the equivalent volume of refined aviation grade kerosene.

The fuel being used in one of the A330’s engines is the same blend of normally produced aviation kerosene plus waste cooking oil derived kerosene that Dutch firm SkyNRG produced last year for Lufthansa for a successful six months long trial on short haul European routes.

At the moment, as Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said at a pre-flight press conference, biofuel alternatives work, but not at a competitive price or volume of supply to aviation grade kerosene refined from oil.

However yesterday Joe Ozimek, the senior Boeing executive pushing Australian carriers to buy the 737 MAX, said that with every barrel of biofuel that was produced, the price would fall.

In a conversation, he said that what was today a boutique fuel moves closer to being a utility fuel with every extra quantity that was produced, and with every upward notch in the price of oil.

And as many others in the alternative fuel game have been saying at green fuel conferences since at least 2003, biofuels as they gain in volume, and decline in price, are a brake on the ability of oil producers to lift prices.

The cross over price at which oil today, going up, would run into biofuels, coming down, is around $US140 per barrel WTI or West Texas intermediate crude as a proxy value.  That also gives oil in recent months an advantage of between $45 per barrel and $30 per barrel.

But the gap is closing.  The alternative fuels industry in general doesn’t ever see biofuels being produced in the volumes needed to replace kerosene refined from fossil-carbon-releasing  oil.  That role is seen as being taken by algal grown octanes, which research already shows can be made in tanks and without any loss of  productive agricultural land,  but is considered to be a goal as near as 2030 or as far as 2050.

Algal grown fuels, whether for jets, or in less demanding roles to replace heating, industrial, maritime and land transport fuels, would reduce the release of fossil-sourced carbon into the natural environment by around 80% according to James Hansen, at the GISS.

The carbon used in such fuels is taken from the air, water or soil carbon sinks, and put back into the natural carbon cycle interchanges when it is burned, while fossil-carbon releasing fuels are rapidly overwhelming those natural cycles with a carbon overburden they cannot  handle.

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