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By Samuel R. Avro on Dec 30, 2008 with no responses

Biofuel Powers Air New Zealand Jumbo Jet Flight

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Knowledge of the fact that the current price of crude oil is not here to stay is motivating airlines to seek alternative fuels to power their airplanes.

In what is being hailed as a significant achievement in the development of sustainable fuels, Air New Zealand successfully flew a test flight powered by second-generation biofuel today.

The two hour test flight used a 50-50 blend of standard jet fuel and synthetic fuel made from the oil of jatropha plant seeds to power one of the engines on a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

“We undertook a range of tests on the ground and in flight with the jatropha biofuel performing well through both the fuel system and engine,” Air New Zealand chief pilot Dave Morgan said.

An Air New Zealand Boeing 747 was successfully run partly on biofuel during a test flight today.

The plane climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet and the engine performed normally, according to the chief pilot.

Tuesday’s flight was a joint venture by Air New Zealand, airplane maker Boeing, engine maker Rolls Royce and biofuel specialist UOP LLC, a unit of Honeywell International.

Plunging fuel prices did not stall or slow the project as airlines are looking for ways to become less dependent on traditional fuels which cost them dearly after crude oil skyrocketed to above $147 a barrel in July.

“Today we stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development and an important moment in aviation history,” said Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand’s chief executive. The project has been 18 months in the works.

Air New Zealand isn’t the only one experimenting with new fuel options.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines worldwide, says airlines are experimenting with a range of plant materials in an effort to find the jet fuel of the future.

Jatropha plants can be processed to produce a high-quality biofuel for cars and airplanes.

“There are very promising biojet fuels, and jatropha is one of them,” association spokesman Anthony Concilhalophytes said, adding that the industry is also looking at switch grass, algae and salt-tolerant plants called halophytes.

Virgin Atlantic in February became the first airline to test a commercial aircraft on a biofuel blend, using a 20 percent mixture of coconut oil and babassu oils in one of its four engines.

Continenral Airlines has said that it is planning a test flight for early January which will be powered by a special blend of half conventional fuel and half with ingredients derived from algae and jatropha plants.

Jatropha is capable of being grown almost anywhere, so it wouldn’t compete with food crops as corn-based ethanol does and has a lower freezing point than traditional biofuels like palm oil.

India successfully runs dozens of trucks and buses on jatropha-based biodiesel, and the country is planning on planting 30 million acres of the plant by 2012.