Air New Zealand held a long-awaited test flight Monday of a biofuel-powered jet plane, becoming the second airline to take to the skies with what the industry hopes will be a cleaner and cheaper alternative fuel.
The airline reported a successful test flight of a 747-400 with one of its four engines powered by fuel consisting of 50 percent jet fuel and 50 percent biofuel. The test flight was a joint initiative between Air New Zealand, Boeing (NYSE: BA), Rolls Royce and UPO, which is owned by Honeywell (NYSE: HON).
Air New Zealand is the second airline to test-fly a jet plane powered by biofuel. The first was Virgin Atlantic Airways, which in February flew a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam with one of its four tanks filled with jet fuel containing a 20 percent blend of biofuel made of coconut and babbasu oil (see Virgin to Test Fly Bio Jet Fuel).
Air New Zealand, on the other hand, used a higher, 50 percent blend of biofuel made from jatropha, an inedible weed that produces oil-rich seeds that are an increasingly popular source of biofuel feedstock (see Weed to Power New Zealand Jets).
The airline said in June that it intended to embark on a two-year research program to develop cheaper and better biofuels from jatropha, with a long-term goal to use 10 percent, or one million barrels, of biofuels for its jets by 2013.
Air New Zealand said in June that its jatropha oil for its first test flight would come from plants grown in southeastern Africa and India and be refined in the United States.
Air New Zealand received jatropha oil from Chennai, India-based Terasol Energy, and UOP refined the oil into biofuel, the airline said Tuesday.
The airline's plans for a test flight in November were put on hold after another, unrelated test flight crashed.
But Monday's test flight showed that the fuel performed well in flight, and engineers planned to spend the coming days checking to see if the biofuel caused any changes in the plane's engine and fuel systems, the airline told Bloomberg on Tuesday.
Airlines have been taking a closer look at biofuels over the past year, driven by the pressure of rising oil costs as well as a stated desire to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
The costs related to kerosene-based jet fuel accounts for about 40 percent of the airline industry's expenses, according to the Air Transport Association of America, and air travel accounts for between 2 percent and 3 percent of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change.
Continental Airlines (NYSE: CAL) is also planning to use biofuel in a test flight, but plans to use one made from algae. The airline said last month that it has picked Sapphire Energy as a supplier of algae-based biofuel to power the airline's first bio-fueled test flight scheduled for January (see Continental Picks Sapphire Energy for Bio Jet Fuel).
While Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic have not used algae-based fuels in their biofuel tests so far, they are keeping their eyes on the aquatic plant. Earlier this year, they and Continental were among the first aviation-centered companies to join the Algal Biomass Organization, an industry-led nonprofit pushing the commercialization of biofuels made from algae and other aquatic plants (see Algae-Based Biofuel Could Prep for Take Off).
Other companies developing algal jet fuels include Solazyme, Inventure Chemical, Aquaflow Bionomic Corp., PetroSun, Chevron and a new Arizona State University spinoff. In September, South San Francisco-based Solazyme announced its algae-based biofuel had passed tests confirming it could be used as jet fuel (see Solazyme Explores Jet-Fuel Market).