Virgin Atlantic is due to operate the first commercial aircraft using fuel from plants or algae on Sunday.
The flight is an attempt to find an alternative to oil-based kerosene, which will cut air travel’s contribution to global warming. The trial on board a Boeing 747 from Heathrow to Amsterdam will see one of the aircraft’s four engines run on a mix of 20% biofuel and 80% kerosene. There will be no passengers and a limited crew.
Virgin Atlantic and Boeing declined to identify the fuel in advance, although Travel Weekly’s sister publication Flight International reported it was derived from algae. A Boeing source denied this.
Biofuels are increasingly viewed as a commercial alternative to petrol. However, they have drawn severe criticism, including from the United Nations, for taking crop land and raising the price of food.
Most plant-derived fuels have already been ruled out by the aviation industry. However, Boeing has identified four potential sources of fuel – three involving plants and one algae – of which algae appears the most promising.
Boeing director of environmental performance Billy Glover said: “We won’t use plants that compete with food crops and won’t encourage deforestation. But a number of things could work that would not require a new engine design.”
He said: “It is a real accomplishment to make this flight. Two years ago, we felt biofuels would not work. Five years ago, the industry wasn’t even talking about emissions.”
Glover said commercial production is at least five to seven years away, when he envisages aircraft filling up at selected airports with a blend of 5%-10% biofuel.
Boeing will join Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce in testing a different biofuel later in the year.
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