carbon related

Mar 14, 2016

Virgin, Air NZ take another step toward biofuels

There are good reasons why Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are pursuing home grown jet grade biofuels in issuing a Request for Information or RFI today in both countries.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

To succeed bio fuels have to work in today's jets as well as tomorrow's.
To succeed bio fuels have to work in today’s jets as well as tomorrow’s.

There are good reasons why Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are pursuing home grown jet grade biofuels in issuing a Request for Information or RFI today in both countries.

The major one of course is the need to curb the release of fossil stored carbon through the burning of conventional refined aviation grade kerosene.

But there is also the matter of fuel security in an uncertain world, and the lucrative potential of future rewards from a carbon trading scheme and the halo effect of supporting new agricultural and industrial activities.

The RFI posted by the trans Tasman partners today asks for information by 30 May, and one might surmise that a nice glossy brochure and multi media presentation by messaging merchants isn’t what the airlines have in mind.

The bio fuel blends that have been successfully flown in at least one Qantas demo flight in this country, and hundreds if not low thousands of scheduled flights within Europe, are refined from bio degradable wastes including cast off cooking oils and plants such as the Jatropha bush, which although promising, has so far failed to deliver for a number of reasons.

Australia’s early stage use of ethanol blends with unleaded petrol doesn’t offer an alternative pathway to make an aviation kerosene substitute because the energy density and low temperature characteristics of ethanol blends have not resulted in anything that could replace jet fuels today on a one for one basis by volume.

Virgin and the Kiwis are thus asking a lot and to a tight time frame. But they have those powerful reasons to pursue the answers. Beyond the issue of fuel security in a country that doesn’t refine much of its petroleum products now, and will possibly have zero refining capacity within a few years, there is the global warming problem.

If airline activity does indeed double or treble within 10-20 years, it will have to be able to drastically reduce the release of fossil stored carbon given the widely anticipated political and social demands that will arise from increasingly obvious climatic warming.

Engine technology and more efficient and lighter airframes, whether metal alloy or carbon fibre composites, have all converged to produce far cleaner and greener flight in just a few decades.

But those gains are not being offset by the growth of air travel, largely driven by hundreds of millions of new spenders in Asia, with Latin America and Africa exhibiting strong rates of uptake.

Crunch time is coming, and well run airlines with longer term ambitions for their core businesses know it.

The secrets to making various suitable bio fuel cocktails are apparently now widely practiced.  The barriers to success include the efficiencies and economies of volume, and a reliable source of feedstocks for small bio fuel refineries close to larger airports.

Location is critical. One of few cost levers bio fuels could apply to established offshore sources of refined aviation fuel is cutting out the wasteful business of shipping by tankers, which with crude oil prices depressed, has now become an even larger factor in the cost of delivered fuel.

Bio fuels need to be made where they will be put as directly as possible into the fuel tanks of waiting jets.

Coming in over the top of this is the benefit of carbon trading credits. It is inevitable that carbon will be taxed in one form or another, and provided the trading schemes recognise the difference between carbon that is mined, and carbon that is grown as part of a natural cycle, the benefits of clean technology will be rewarded.

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7 thoughts on “Virgin, Air NZ take another step toward biofuels

  1. Jacob HSR

    Is there any point to this when electric cars are going to take over the world and also more and more nations are getting High Speed Rail.

    Even 3rd world India is getting HSR.

  2. Peter Darco

    I dare say that after hybrid cars we will start to see hybrid planes. Hydrocarbon fuel to get above the clouds and then photo-voltaic generation.

  3. Bern

    @Peter Darco,

    The 787 has a total drag force of 98 kN, based on a quick google search (result I used: ). Assuming you come up with an electric motor twice as efficient as the ones on the Airbux e-Fan plane (30kW for 0.75kN thrust each, according to Wikipedia), you’d need nearly 2 megawatts of electric power to keep a 787 at cruise speed.

    The wing area (if I’ve read the spec sheet correctly) is ~325m2. With thin-film solar panels running at ~10% efficiency, that would net you 42.2 kW of electrical power, with the sun directly overhead.

    I’m sorry, but there’s just no way you’re going to fit enough solar panels on an airliner to provide 2 MW of electricity, even if the airliner only flies at midday with the sun directly overhead. Even if you assume 90% of the drag is from the engines themselves, you’re still not going to generate 200kW from solar panels on the plane. Some sort of fuel cell, perhaps, but not solar cells.

    (Feel free to point out any errors in my calcs, my head’s not in it tonight, and I can’t shake the niggling feeling I’ve screwed something up…)

    BTW, carbon emissions aren’t the only problem with airliners – another greenhouse gas in airliner exhaust is water vapour. Not a problem near the ground, because it’ll just join the rest of the water cycle and rain out. But up in the stratosphere, where there isn’t any water normally, it hangs around for quite some time, and can have a significant greenhouse impact.

    This problem remains with fuel cells that run on hydrogen.

    Still, cart before the horse, and all that – let’s get rid of the fossil carbon first, and *then* worry about stratospheric water vapour…

  4. Dan Dair

    Jacob HSR,
    The minute you can successfully explain how I can travel by HSR from Melbourne (MEL) to Dallas (DFW), I’ll be straight over to your side of the fence.???

    Is the ‘HSR’ bit of your screen-name a bit of a giveaway as to where your sympathies lie.?

  5. BugSmasher


    Commercial jets fly in the middle to upper troposphere, and definitely not in the stratosphere. The tropopause (boundary between troposphere and stratosphere) varies by time and latitude, but is typically around 50,000 to 60,000 feet. Commercial jet exhaust water vapour joins the normal water cycle in the troposphere.

  6. Roger Clifton

    The sheer volume of fuel required for air transport makes a mockery of any biofuel pipedream. Far more credible would be the manufacture of fuel directly from non-carbon electricity and atmospheric CO2. Both are limitless, unlike crop-growing land area.

  7. Roger Clifton

    Graph of height of tropopause versus latitude:

    Mid latitude cruising flight (40000 ft, 12 km)is at the top of the troposphere. But the rate of decrease of convective stirring with height would be gradual. On the other hand, in the USA, “During the 3 day period after 9/11 global temp went up 1 degree” (ref), which suggests rapid clearing of ice crystals.

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