There’s something in the air…

Sir Richard BransonIn 2006 the charismatic British entrepreneur Richard Branson announced plans to reduce the environmental impacts of flying. He planned fuel-saving measures such as towing aircraft to the runway and the establishment of a Virgin Fuels division, funded with profits from his transportation companies.

As the founder and part owner of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America, Branson is well placed to worry about the damage of airline emissions, both to the environment and to his industry. And the price of oil must be a source of some concern, too.

The towing idea never made it out of the departure lounge: Boeing warned that their 747s weren’t designed for so much load on the nose of the plane, and that this would increase maintenance costs.

But there is significant progress to report elsewhere: Virgin recently announced that in February it will fly a 747 from London to Amsterdam using a kerosene biofuel mix. The company hasn’t said what the fuel will be made from, only that it will come from a “very sustainable” source. Of course, biofuels themselves aren’t carbon-free. But depending on the type of fuel (and the carbon intensity of its growth and production) the plane’s footprint should still be significantly reduced.

Whatever the future may hold for biofuels, this is pretty awesome news. Even though we still don’t know exactly how much impact air travel has on the environment (see Tom’s post for more on this), it’s clear that it is an awful lot, and growing. Even if biofuels aren’t the eventual answer to replacing gasoline, this still represents enormous progress in the journey to finding a substitute.

Virgin is the first commercial airline to experiment with biofuels. But other smaller outfits have made significant progress, too. Green Flight International flew a L-29 Russian military aircraft on 100% biofuel at altitudes up to 17,000 feet in October last year. The company is now planning a round-the-world trip in a Lear Jet powered entirely (and solely) by biofuel.

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  1. Dan - January 23, 2008

    At some point prople will understand that not all”biofuels” are ethanol from corn and no one belives that any biofuel can totally replace dinosaur fuel – yet. But it can make a huge dent, along with the most important factor – conservation.
    BIODIESEL has a 3.35 to 1 energy gain and the way we make it is over 5 to 1 and ethanol is now up to 1.1 to 1. Ethanol is mostly corn now and BIODIESEL is multi-sourced and can be – as we do it, from waste cooking oil.
    BIODIESEL burning has an 80% reduction in CO2 emission, 50% less CO and 100% reduction of UHC and particulates – not including the emissions savings by not transporting oil half way around the world. Ethanol – very little reduction except the transport savings.
    Perhaps a little awareness is in order on the many differences in biofuels

  2. Dan - January 23, 2008

    OK, people not prople, although maybe that could be for optomists.

  3. Pete - January 23, 2008

    Virgin hasn’t released details of the fuel they’re using yet (or the exact kerosene/biofuel mix) so I didn’t want to jump the gun by producing any hard numbers on CO2 or other emissions reductions — “should still be significantly reduced” seemed like a decent fudge!
    TerraPass is very interested in, and continues to watch, the progress of biofuels. I’d encourage you to read Tom’s post from May last year and some of the subsequent comments:

  4. Phoenix Woman - January 23, 2008

    This could be a good way to bridge the gap until battery-powered planes (with solar assists) are possible.

  5. Evan Little - January 23, 2008

    Good for Richard and all. So many people are scared to take the first step and I don’t believe the US tax payers should be the ones forking over their money to get the ball rolling.
    Excited to hear what kind of bio-fuel they’re using!

  6. Anonymous - January 23, 2008

    While using biofuel is a step in the right direction, we need to know that it is not the sole solution to our energy problem. The U.N. recently voiced concerns that land is being cleared to create farms for biofuel, as well as replacing farms that were initially only for food. As a result, we are losing forest areas and may cause food shortages. I’m not saying using biofuel is bad, but that it should only be part of the solution.

  7. Monty - January 23, 2008

    I have to agree that while it is great this is being done (I truly mean that), we can not lose sight that, currently, the only solution is conservation. What that would do to our economy is an open question (and probably not a popular one at the moment), but purely from an environmental perspective, we need to be buying less airline tickets.
    That said, for those times when we do have to fly, it would be nice if it was always on a ‘biofuel’ vehicle.

  8. Les Brinsfield - January 24, 2008

    What are savings in cost? Crude oil?