Airbus has flown an A380 from Bristol in the UK and Toulouse in France on alternative fuel. The synthetic jet fuel was supplied by Shell and produced from natural gas in Qatar using the Fischer-Tropsch process. It’s the first test of gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel in an airliner, but similar synthetic jet fuel is already being qualified by the US Air Force across all of its aircraft.
So what was the point of the flight, other than to steal some thunder from Boeing and the much-hyped Virgin Atlantic biofuel demonstration planned later in February? A cynic would say Airbus is trying to convince a concerned public it is going green, but there is almost no difference in the CO2 produced by GTL jet fuel and kerosene. Okay, it does burn cleaner, cutting NOx, sulphur and soot emissions, and a slightly higher energy content should trim the fuel consumed per trip.
But when it comes to tackling aviation’s evironmental impact, GTL is a bit of a non-starter – or, at best, an interim step. Cleaner-burning jet fuel is a good thing, but CO2 is the issue haunting the industry and only biofuel appears to offer a long-term solution. But bio-jet fuel is years away, whatever Sir Richard Branson might claim after his 747-400 flies from London to Amsterdam with one of its GE engines running on processed pond scum, or whatever it is.
GTL will be useful in diversifying the sources of jet fuel, and it may stimulate the development of “designer” fuels with better properties than kerosene, but aviation needs to keep up the pressure to develop sustainable, renewable sources of bio-jet fuel.