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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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