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LAST YEAR, Alaska Airlines conducted a series of tests on 75 flights, all of which showed no detrimental effects of using biofuels. Those trial flights were the last in a number of proving exercises to determine the viability of alternative fuels in airline operations. And while recently these demonstration flights have wound down, the development of aviation biofuels is far from stagnant.

Even earlier, in February 2008, Virgin Atlantic began the trend when they made the headlines for operating the first ever demonstration flight using a blend of Jet A1 and plant-based biofuel. The short London-Amsterdam hop was carried out to test the effects of biofuels on turbofans and investigate any operational limitations. The flight was hailed a success and the airline accredited with paving the way for the introduction of a revolutionary development in the airline industry.

747-8f biofuel

Manufacturers have also jumped on the biofuel bandwagon. Boeing made the news when they flew a B747-8f to the Paris Airshow in 2011 using a biofuel blend in all four engines

Algae.Tec is one of many companies whose aim is to provide an alternate source of fuel for the aviation industry. They claim that they will be able to sustainably produce biofuels from algae efficiently, but more importantly, be able to sell them for over half the going rate for Jet A1.

By nature, biofuels do not possess the same chemical compounds found in hydrocarbons. There are no sulfur derivatives, and hence do not produce the harmful sulfur-dioxide found in the emissions of Jet A1. It is estimated that harmful gases produced by aviation emissions can be reduced by over 60% if biofuels are introduced on a wide scale in the industry.

Looking beyond these benefits, biofuels also have their disadvantages. Plant-based fuel alternatives are encompassed by the “Food vs. Fuel” debate; where the ethics of using land previously reserved for crop growing are questioned as they could result in less supply of food. The resulting food shortage would have a significant impact on overall global development, particularly in emerging third-world countries. Interestingly, the effect of using these alternative fuels could also actually have an overall adverse effect on carbon emissions, particularly in the case of wild forests being cleared to make way for industrial biofuel production.

A few of the airlines that have recently committed to biofuel developments.

A few of the airlines that have recently committed to biofuel developments

Support for a sustainable alternative to conventional jet fuel is growing; new breakthroughs are now becoming a reality. As with most modern developments, the technologies involved have yet to reach their maturity and solutions still have to be discovered. When they do, being able to substitute hydrocarbon-based fuels for renewable ones may hold the key for significant and positive shifts in the way airlines, and the aviation industry as a whole, make their success.

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