Up, up and away (Where are my flip flops?)

Well, it turns out I may not need to give up my cherished air travel. Aircraft manufacturers and operators are on top of the problem of aircraft emissions and they’re making real progress towards keeping us all flying without fossil fuels. By next year, aviation experts predict, biofuels will be ready to use in blended form to power aircraft engines and by 2013 as a full replacement for jet fuel.
Testing and evaluation have come a long way since 2008 when Virgin Airlines flew from London to Amsterdam with one engine slurping up a mix of 20 percent palm oil and fossil fuel. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the American Society for Testing and Materials are now at work developing biofuel standards for the aviation industry, while manufacturers like Boeing and Bombardier are testing their airplanes in flight with biofuels. In April this year (2010), the United States Navy broke the speed of sound in an F18 jet flying on a 50/50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel.
The encouraging aspect of all this enterprise is the ready acceptance by the aviation industry that plant matter used to power aircraft must be grown in a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable manner. This means that potential suppliers are looking to crops like Jatropha curcas―a plant that grows primarily in the southern hemisphere with minimal water and fertilizer and that can provide economic benefits to developing countries―as potential sources for fuel. The industry is also evaluating plants like camelina which grows in more temperate climates and algae that can be grown virtually anywhere in the world. Such crops can produce oil for biofuels on marginal land or under conditions that do not displace valuable farmland needed to grow food to feed people. Biofuel feed stocks also remove carbon from the air as they grow, in a closed loop system that has the potential to be carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels that only add to the carbon in the air when they are burned.
The nut of the Jatropha tree contains an oil that has half the carbon emissions of petroleum based oil. The tree has a 50-year lifespan and can produce 1,500 litres of oil per hectare at half the cost of biofuel made from corn. Jatropha photo taken near Falan, Mali by R.K. Henning. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
I am very pleased that this particular industry is moving forward with real solutions to climate change. The next time I climb aboard that airplane I hope it carries me, on tanks full of biofuel, to a nice warm place like Mali where the Jatropha tree grows.
Camelina sativa is fast growing (120 days from seed to harvest). The plant’s seeds contain 40 percent oil. Photograph and drawing from Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License.