May 30, 2008

Airbus Betting Pond Scum Will Replace Petroleum

Airbus is jumping onto the alt fuel bandwagon, working alongside Honeywell, International Aero Engines, UOP and JetBlue Airways to develop technology for turning algae and vegetable oil into fuel. Airbus is betting pond scum and veggies could provide 30 percent of all jet fuel by 2030.With the air industry under increasing pressure to rein in emissions and airlines taking it on the chin from rising fuel prices, the incentive to find an alternative to kerosene has never been higher. Although modern commercial jets are more efficient - and cleaner- than ever, many in the industry agree they've still got a long way to go.

"Over the last 40 years, aviation has reduced fuel burn - and therefore carbon dioxide emissions - by 70 percent, but more needs to be done," says Sebastien Remy, head of alt fuels research at Airbus. "Millions of barrels of kerosene are used each day for aircraft fuel, and worldwide demand is growing."

Airbus and its partners are a little late to the alt fuel party. Boeing and Virgin Atlantic made the first bio fuel-powered flight in February, and Chevron is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to figure out the best way to make fuel from algae. But Airbus and its partners are well-positions to catch up quickly.

Airbus is one of the world's largest commercial jet makers, so its involvement lends credence - and a sense of urgency - to the project. UOP, a gas and chemical processing company, has already developed technology for converting natural gases and oils to military jet fuel under a project bankrolled by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). UOP says the technology could be applied to commercial jets.

International Aero Engines builds the engines used on many of Airbus' planes, and Honeywell is providing its engine technology expertise. JetBlue will test potential fuels in its planes. Beyond the environmental benefits, Airbus and its partners say biofuel makes good business sense because it has the potential to increase aircraft payloads and range, reduce fuel consumption and extend engine life.

There's no denying that any effort to sink time and money into new fuel development is a good thing, but some environmentalists see the recent Virgin biofuel test flight as nothing more than a big publicity stunt designed to make the airline look good. They note that any benefits associated with using biofuels would be offset by just one year's growth in the airline industry. These kinds of announcements give the industry a chance to regurgitate some eco-friendly sound bites like this:

"This has the potential to benefit every world citizen beyond those involved in our business," Russ Chew, president and CEO of JetBlue, said in a statement. "Each of our companies has the social responsibility to work toward developing a cleaner way to do business."

That's a big promise. You guys better get on it.

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