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Jatropha jet fuel

As 2009 gets underway, it’s encouraging to see the world’s airlines competing for environmental credentials. I wrote last month about Emirates’ claim to have launched the longest green flight, SFO to Dubai.

Now Air New Zealand reports that it powered one of the engines of a Boeing 747-400 with oil from jatropha plants. Continental Airlines has a special flight planned for Jan. 7 running partly on jatropha and algae-derived fuel. Virgin Atlantic, United, and Japan Airlines are also testing approaches to making their flights greener.

Growing plants to power jet planes raises a host of environmental issues such as whether the crops will crowd out food supplies. Jatropha seems to be a promising choice in that it grows in arid lands and that each seed can produce about a third of its weight in oil.

These green airline initiatives shouldn’t dissuade us from adopting carbon-reducing resolutions for the New Year (e.g., I will fly only when I really have to). But the new jet fuels now in test phase offer hope that air travel may still have a place in a low-carbon economy.

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